DETROIT – Auto industry executives say electric utilities must start rolling out smart grids soon or risk jeopardizing the future of electric vehicles in the U.S.

“We have to show consumers that it works,” says Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president at Nissan.

Shinohara tells the SAE World Congress here it might be time to incentivize the smart grid’s rollout. Such a move would motivate EV owners to invest in their home’s electrical systems to accommodate the new technology and spur electric-utility companies to broaden its penetration.

“The direct benefit is not so big right now,” he says.

General Motors’ executive director of electrification and infotainment, agrees. “The smart grid isn’t very smart right now,” says Micky Bly, who ushered the Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV to market. “We need to get our act together or consumers are going to give up.”

EV makers such as Nissan, Ford and GM are counting on the smart grid as part of their rollouts of the next-generation vehicles. The big benefit of smart-grid technology is it allows EV owners to charge their vehicles when electricity demand is low and, therefore, less costly.

Owners simply plug in and the smart grid decides when to send electricity to their cars. Charged EVs could also send electricity back to the grid when it’s needed most, saving utilities money, and even run household appliances.

But smart-grid technology is costly for utilities to build and current demand is not widespread, so the rollout has been slow.

Bly calls on automobile engineers attending this year’s World Congress to continue to promote common standards in order to speed up deployment of the smart grid and take the fate of EVs out of the hands of the utilities.

“We’re going to keep pushing hard for standardization, at least what we can control,” he says. “It’s what SAE has done for decades.”

The Volt recently did an end-run around smart-gird deployment by using GM’s OnStar telematics technology with partners Google and the utility PJM Interconnection to send drivers information on when and where to charge their vehicles using renewable energy at peak wind times.

“Our suppliers are really looking forward to (standardization), too, because they cannot design a system for every one of us,” Bly says.

One big hurdle is the highly fragmented utility industry, made up of some 3,000 different companies operating at national and regional levels. There are seven grid operators nationally.

“With this fragmentation, it is difficult to drive consistency,” says Glen Stancil, vice president at NRG Energy EV Services, a power-generator company trying to build the nation’s first privately funded EV charging infrastructure.

Consistent standards also would lead to greater reliability, the executives say. An unreliable smart grid could lead to outages and dissatisfaction among EV owners unable to charge their cars.

The smart grid will come, says Mark Little, executive vice president and director at GE Global Research.

Just a handful of years ago, GE did not operate in the renewable-energy space. But it was able to buy a $200 million wind business out of Enron’s bankruptcy. GE invested technology into the unit and today it is a $7.5 billion global business.

“There has been tremendous innovation,” Little tells attendees. “The cost of wind electricity has gone from $0.20 per kWh to $0.06 or $0.08 per kWh over a decade, and there is still a lot of room to improve on that.”

“That same innovation will happen in the EV space,” he insists. “It might take the better part of a decade, but it will come.”

Akihiko Tobe, general manager-Social Innovation Business Project Div. at Hitachi, says such innovation already is occurring, noting is company currently is participating in three smart-grid projects involving EVs.

A 1-year-old project in Okinawa rents a fleet of 220 Nissan Leaf EVs to tourists and relies on a network of 27 rapid-charging stations. Another 1-year-old project in Hawaii rents EVs to tourists, but the vehicles are charged using renewable energy.

A third program in Hitachi City, Japan, which was badly damaged by last year’s earthquake and tsunami, will roll out a fleet of EV buses for public transportation. In the event of another disaster, it will serve as auxiliary power units for evacuation centers.

“We are doing actual services for smart cities,” Tobe says. “All we have to do is achieve experience from those types of projects.”

jamend@wardsauto.com