Thinking Tech

A call for 1 million electric cars -- and a better grid

A call for 1 million electric cars -- and a better grid

Posting in Energy

The electric grid isn't ready for electric cars.

An alliance of companies and government agencies chaired by HSH Prince Albert II of Monoco -- called EV20 -- called this week for at least a million more electric cars on the road by 2015, beyond what is already planned.

That would be a minimum of 0.1 percent of all the cars in the world, if predictions of a billion vehicles on the road by 2015 are correct.

One problem, though, is that the U.S. electric grid isn't ready for electric cars, according to a group of venture capitalists and consultants who spoke yesterday in Silicon Valley about the smart grid -- or lack of it.

They were discussing ways to modernize the grid, much of which is still based on 1960s technology, so that electricity could flow two ways -- from the grid to cars and from cars back to the grid.

"I work with USC and UCLA just trying to understand the grid impacts of putting electricity on and taking it off and nobody today has the answer," said Kris Brown of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Could there be a negative impact on the grid? Yes."

One short-term solution is for utilities to allow customers with electric cars to remove their cars from the grid and use solar panels to charge them, Brown said, but that idea is still being piloted.

Utilities need help figuring out what happens to the grid when energy resources are distributed -- when there are two megawatts of solar power here and another two megawatts over there -- and that's a number-crunching problem, according to Andy Colman, a senior vice president at GRIDiant, which makes management software for utilities and is looking for more funding to develop its product.

Next Tuesday at UCLA there's a full-day meeting on how electric vehicles can be integrated into the grid, and how the grid can be made smarter. The state of California is also pushing for more electric vehicles, and UCLA researchers say that a mass market for electric cars will require "massive changes" in the way utilities transmit and distribute electricity now.

From UCLA:

If 25% of all vehicles were Electric Vehicles today, the current infrastructure in the U.S. would have a difficult time supporting the charging of these EVs - substantial technological, infrastructure and behavioral changes would be required to do so in a scalable and efficient manner. Some utilities have reported numbers which indicate that even a single 220V EV charger may during peak consumption hours overload its transformer.

Therefore, the current infrastructure needs to be upgraded both from a capacity standpoint as well as from a flexibility and power routing/control standpoint. Adding capacity is far more expensive than adding intelligence and smart power routing capability, and the eventual solution will require an innovation combination of both. Certainly, adding auxiliary power sources at the edge of the power network such as residential solar PVCs to feed into the grid would help from a capacity standpoint, but using such alternative fuels so as the move the energy around where it is needed from where it is produced will require a very sophisticated and smart grid.

Still, many people have thought about ways to make the grid better, and they'll be talking about those ideas:

Due to the addition of a large number of batteries by way of these EVs there is the potential to aggregate them to create an energy storage buffer which can absorb excessive power during low-load periods such as during the night, and become a source of electrical power during high-load periods such as a hot summer's afternoon.

This ability can help substantially with Demand Response, which is a key and yet challenging problem for the utilities. This source of energy can also provide buffer power for smoothing out frequency fluctuations resulting from mismatched demand (generation versus consumption) - and therefore could be used for Demand Dispatch by the utilities. All of these needs and capabilities will require the integration of sophisticated technologies including communications, wireless, sense-and-control, Internet, mobile computing, cloud computing, Lithium Ion and other battery technology, superconductors, etc.

Watch for more coverage on the smart grid next week.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure