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Media post: Becoming Part of the Grid

One of the biggest issues that electric utilities face is that of capacity, in other words, how to deal with peak power demand. Here’s an example of how this works: Suppose if during the middle of the summer, when air conditioning use is ultrahigh, a utility power plant needs to deliver some 500 MegaWatts of power to their customers.  Well, that power plant had better be capable of generating 500 MegaWatts. The problem is that building a 500 MegaWatt power plant is very, very expensive and for most of the year it only needs to generate a fraction of that. Wouldn’t it be nice if a far cheaper, lets say 100 MegaWatt plant, could store its electricity up and release it during peak use? What if thousands of Electric Vehicles (EVs) were available to store electricity?

Accordingly, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi and Toyota have formed a group that is designing a common method for EVs to work with the grid. Communicating with the grid means that power companies can tap EV batteries in the region that are connected for electrical storage purposes. The automakers and electric utilities taking part in the project are acting out of mutual interest. They know that power demand fluctuates from hour to hour and so do prices. That means utilities could save money by charging EV batteries when electricity demand is lowest, and by drawing on the electricity stored in these batteries when needed.

To test the concept, last year, the University of Delaware revealed a pilot project in which 15 Mini Cooper EVs, donated to researchers by BMW, earned money for charging and discharging electricity when needed. One of the first issues they needed to deal with, according to Barkau Automotive (Freeport, Il) is simply how the control communications are handled. Utilities currently must write different software for a Chevrolet Volt, a Nissan Leaf and any other EVs to access the grid. Some automakers want control signals transmitted to their EVs over power lines; others, like GM, want them sent wirelessly. So there currently is a need for a common language EV battery packs access.  However, this is simply a matter of standardization and agreement on techniques and methods.  Don’t expect that if you buy an electric vehicle that this sort of program will be available soon.  There is a great deal of work to be done. Conceivably, though, in a few more years it may start to be implemented and this could lead to a cheaper electricity because powerplants could be built on a smaller scale.

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