FORT COLLINS, COLORADO— One of the great things about electric cars is that they can give power back to the grid, as well as take from it. The little Mitsubishi I-MiEV parked in a hangar here may someday be smoothing out peak demand at, say, 6 p.m., when people are cooking dinner and running the air conditioners. It isn't here yet, but it's why I'm visiting the Electric Grid Integration Project at the National Renewable Energy Lab.
It works like this: most cars are parked 95 percent of the time, not doing a thing. If your vehicle is an electric, the plug that recharges it can also send power the other way. One car isn't very significant, but 100 of them is a nice chunk of electricity that can offset a utility's need to turn on another peaking plant. Theoretically, you can even get paid for having your car serve as standby power for utilities.
According to Michael Kuss, the bearded proprietor of NREL's lab, the smart grid in nearby Boulder (and a growing number of other places) is best for hacking into EVs and maximizing their potential. But even if your Connecticut utility is installing a smart meter as we speak (I've got mine already), and you own an EV, don't expect to be getting a revenue stream anytime soon. Kuss tells me that fleets are first.
NREL is developing standards for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging, and that's obviously important to get out of the way. And the guinea pigs for V2G are "micro-grids, campuses, fleets of various kinds," he says. It makes sense, because fleet vehicles—taxis, rental cars, short-haul trucks—are parked in the same place every night, and can be added to the grid in one clump. "The V2G market for micro-grids looks practical and competitive," Kuss says.
Campuses like the very EV-friendly University of California at San Diego operate their own power plants, and some have large-scale battery backup. With EVs feeding the grid, especially at peak times, they can downsize their expensive batteries.
Kuss says he doubts V2G, which means more draining and filling of EV batteries, will hurt your car's pack. "The cycling is fairly minimal, so it shouldn't degrade too much," he said.
In 2008, the father of V2G, Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware, launched a pilot project with PJM Interconnection, a big electricity manager for 13 eastern states. He has a small V2G fleet plugged in and receiving payments of $5 to $10 a day. It's small, with just seven cars, but is good for validating the concept. Utilities seem eager to explore the idea, and Google loves it, too, exploring how it might work with its on-campus plug-in hybrids.
The problem here is that consumer EVs are still in very small numbers, and like blue whales they're unfortunately scattered around. They need to reach herd size before V2G becomes practical.
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