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Sunday, December 29, 2013
Electric cars may hold solution for power storage
In a Delaware pilot project, electricity is stored in and retrieved
from the batteries of idle vehicles. Car owners would be paid.
A row of Mini Coopers acts as a sort of power plant, drawing energy
during off-peak times and delivering it back to the grid when it's
needed most in a pilot project at the University of Delaware.
NEWARK, Del. — The thick blue
cables and white boxes alongside an industrial garage here look like
those in any electric-car charging station. But they work in a way that
could upend the relationship Americans have with energy.
The retrofitted Mini
Coopers and other vehicles plugged into sockets where a Chrysler plant
once stood do more than suck energy out of the multi-state electricity
grid. They also send power back into it.
With every zap of juice into or out of the region's fragile power network, the car owner gets paid.
The pilot project here at the
University of Delaware has had enough success to set off a frenzy of
activity in the auto and electricity industries, particularly in
California, where Gov. Jerry Brown's transportation plan this year promoted "vehicle-to-grid" technology.
Entrepreneurs and government agencies see the technology as a
possible solution to a vexing dilemma: how to affordably store renewable
energy so it can be available when it is needed, not only when the wind
blows or the sun shines.
"This is a fascinating option," said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of
the California Energy Commission. "The technology works. You can do
this. The question is … what do we need to do to make it happen?"
California has the nation's most aggressive goals for renewable power
and also wants to put 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road
over the next decade. State officials say vehicle-to-grid technology
could point toward a way to accomplish both goals faster, for less
The idea is that utilities would pay vehicle owners to store
electricity in the batteries of electric vehicles when the power grid
has a surplus and drain electricity back out of them when demand rises.
The plan takes advantage of a key fact about cars: They spend most of
their time parked. The technology makes idle vehicles a source of
storage for utilities and cash for car owners.
The "Cash Back Car" is how the concept is described by Jon
Wellinghoff, the recently retired chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission. "It provides another incentive for people to buy electric
cars," he said.
The technology could solve a potentially serious problem. The power
grid, a massive tangle of power plants, transformers and thousands of
miles of wire, needs to maintain a steady and balanced flow of power.
Sudden surges threaten crashes that can cause blackouts. That makes the
stop-and-go nature of energy from the wind and sun a constant source of
A cost-effective method of storing renewable energy and controlling
its flow into the system has long eluded the energy industry, which has
taken to calling storage the "Holy Grail."
Of course, nothing with electricity is simple. To begin with,
carmakers are not in the business of keeping the electricity grid
stable. They build cars to perform on the road and worry what all this
usage will do to their batteries.
"Almost without exception, their first response is, 'If you use my
battery for that purpose, we will void the warranty,'" said Tom Gage,
chief executive of EVGrid, a California vehicle-to-grid technology
Innovators in the field are gradually convincing car manufacturers of
the potential to create a "value proposition for the car owner" and
thus boost sales, Gage said. Ultimately, however, carmakers may be put
at ease by experiments being conducted by the military.
The Navy has begun an intensive study with MIT to test batteries used only for driving against those that are plugged into the grid for storage.
And the week before Christmas, the Pentagon transported 13 Nissan Leafs to a Southern California Edison
charging facility in Pomona as part of a $20-million program involving
dozens of vehicles at Los Angeles Air Force Base and the Naval Air
Weapons Station at China Lake.
The Pentagon hopes to eventually employ the technology at bases
across the country, which could jump-start mass production of the
chargers and software involved.
"We're looking to determine if we can make electric vehicles
cost-competitive with conventional vehicles," said Camron Gorguinpour,
executive director of the Defense Department's Plug-In Electric Vehicle
Program. The department pays about $200 per month to lease a Nissan
Leaf. Using a vehicle to store energy, he said, could generate enough
revenue to offset most of that cost.
"You could pay close to nothing for the lease," he said.
But battery wear is just one hurdle. An even bigger challenge is
reshaping utility regulations, electricity markets and the complicated
tangle of algorithms that form the backbone of the grid.
"It can be an
administrative nightmare to have a bunch of little power sources being
fed into the grid," said Scott Shepard, an analyst at Navigant
Staff members at the California Public Utilities Commission are exploring the regulatory changes that would be needed.
Utilities may prefer other emerging technologies that could prove
more lucrative. Power companies typically make money by investing in
large plants and charging customers enough to provide a guaranteed rate
of return. There are no large storage plants involved with vehicle
Nevertheless, back in Delaware, the professor who gave birth to the
program, Willett Kempton, is gratified to see the concept taking hold.
He first proposed the idea in a paper in 1997. Researchers had begun
their hunt for storage options. The electric car industry was also
starting to have success. Kempton hit on the idea of combining the two.
"In industrialized countries, the average car battery is used only
one hour per day," he noted. Why not put the storage devices to work?
Ten years later, he had a concept car up and running and demonstrated
the technology in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
headquarters in Washington, where regulators could see, for the first
time, a car sending juice back to the grid.
This year, the university began getting paid for power storage
created by its fleet of Minis. And just this month, Honda provided a
vehicle to the pilot.
"There is momentum behind this idea," Kempton said. "These batteries are a huge resource, and we are going to need them."