Plugging into the electric grid

  • 04-Aug-2008 01:36 EDT
Saturn Vue plug-in & Karsner.jpg
The U.S. DOE's Alexander Karsner, in front of a plug-in hybrid electric Saturn Vue Green Line concept, announced the addition of electric companies to a partnership dedicated to developing vehicles for a clean and sustainable transportation future.

Energy security and the reduction of greenhouse gases and tailpipe emissions are driving the U.S. transportation industry to develop alternative solutions, but an ineffective infrastructure would put it all in jeopardy.

For plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), the interface between those vehicles and the utility grid is an infrastructure quite different from a driver stopping at a service station to fill up the vehicle's tank with ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, or another fuel.

"When you start using electricity for transportation, you need a similar alignment like we've had in the past with the oil industry," said Dr. Gerhard Schmidt, Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering for Ford Motor Co. "You have to build up the infrastructure. So this latest cooperation finally makes the technology convenient for our customers because, without this cooperation, it would be a very rough road."

Southern California Edison (SCE) and Michigan's DTE Energy were announced as the newest FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership participants during a June press event at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, MI. The precompetitive research and development task force involves the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), whose members include Chrysler LLC, Ford, and General Motors Corp.; fuel companies BP America, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corp., and Shell Hydrogen LLC; as well as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

"For a long time, we focused on various technologies almost sequentially at the Department of Energy," said Alexander Karsner, the DOE's Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Although the various prior projects yielded technical progress, Karsner said the end goal today is about giving choices in the future. "We're basically saying don't chose winners, don't assume there is only one path for tomorrow. There will be different cars in different markets for different reasons," said Karsner.

PHEVs, for instance, would do "very, very well in urban areas where people want to avoid fillups because their commute is 20 to 30 mi, so they can plug-in at their household every night," said Karsner. But vehicle battery recharges necessitate being plugged into an electric utility grid that can handle the load. "A study by Pacific Northwest National Labs found that existing off-peak electric generation and grid capacity could fuel 84% of the 198 million light-duty vehicles on the road today," said Knut Simonsen, President of Energy Ventures for DTE Energy.

Even with millions of vehicles connecting to the grid, "we wouldn't have to build one new powerplant. But the operative phase is that it can be done only 'with control' because we can't just have transportation connect ad hoc whenever and wherever. We have to manage the load," said Edward Kjaer, Director of Electric Transportation for SCE.

At least in the near-term, the tool for managing the electric load is a smart meter that provides real-time energy use and cost information via a two-way wireless interface.

"We think that, once our meters are deployed—5 million meters by 2012—we're going to reduce the peaks during critical times throughout the year by up to 1000 MW. We're beta testing 5000 meters now, and next year we'll start replacing traditional electric meters," said Kjaer. "When the first-generation cars start to plug in, the grid will be ready in some areas of the country, particularly in California, because we tend to be further ahead when it comes to smart meters."

SCE's Electric Vehicle Technical Center, established in the early 1990s, is a hub for testing, evaluating, and demonstrating advanced vehicle-drive systems including those for electric vehicles and PHEVs. "This center is doing work aimed at understanding the impacts of PHEVs and other transportation technologies on the grid," said Kjaer.

Both SCE and DTE are flush with PHEV activities. "Throughout the last 20 years, we've had partnerships with virtually every major automaker in the U.S. Right now, we have several different plug-in vehicle prototypes that we're evaluating and testing," said Kjaer. For example, Ford is providing 20 Escape PHEVs to SCE as part of a multiyear, multimillion dollar evaluation demonstration program.

DTE is leading a PHEV pilot project in partnership with the University of Michigan and General Motors. "The multimillion dollar project began in July and runs through July 2010. The exact plans are currently being developed, but we fully expect to test and evaluate PHEVs and the interface between these vehicles and the electric utility system as part of this pilot program," said Simonsen.

A nationwide study is also in the works "to help answer the questions of customer acceptance and price sensitivity to PHEVs," said Simonsen.

Unlocking the full value of PHEVs means providing easy and safe access to electricity charging. "DTE Energy is exploring a range of solutions as part of our pilot project that will enable customers to charge their cars where they want: at home whether or not they have a garage, at work, at the movies, and at the mall," said Simonsen.

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