Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Smart Grid – Part III: Electric Cars Need Intelligent Power

Buckminster Fuller wisely said, “The best way to predict the future is to design it.” Creating a worldwide smart grid poses multiple design problems but a bright future in which everything that consumes electricity talks to each other -- energy providers, smart buildings, home appliances, aircraft, solar panels, batteries... and, notably, electric cars and an infrastructure to support them.

Currently, the United States alone supports 234 million vehicles that, each year, swallow roughly 140 trillion gallons of fuel and expel about 1.4 trillion tons of CO2. There are more than 600 million vehicles in the world; do the math and you'll see what kind of trouble we're in.

Building electric cars and a smart grid to support them can cut those numbers significantly, but it'll require new ways of looking at things -- we tend to shoehorn new ideas into old models and end up with inferior results. Case in point: our approach to electrifying vehicles. Cars have gas tanks; when the gauge nears empty, we stop and fill them up. So we've designed electric cars with the idea that when we get low on juice, we’ll simply stop and recharge the batteries. The problems with this model are overwhelming. Filling up a gas tank can take ten minutes; recharging a battery could take hours. There's no infrastructure of plug-in spots to support electrical vehicles.Today's power grid can't deliver electricity over long distances, and the grid isn't sophisticated enough to distribute varying amounts of electricity as needs change in real time in different areas.

There's another model that's getting traction. In this scenario a smart grid will not only power vehicles efficiently but turn them into storage units. Drivers will plug into smart charging stations, homes, offices, malls, parks -- there'll be an outlet wherever and whenever you need one. Drivers who can't take the time to "top off their tanks" will stop at swap spots -- think of them as gas stations where, in just a few minutes, automated attendants remove a spent battery and put in one with a full charge. It's not a completely foreign idea;  engineering students at the University of Michigan are working on an autonomous device that'll extend the flight time of model helicopters by removing depleted batteries and replacing them with new ones. The battery swapper, a rudimentary but functional device, will allow one of their model helicopters to operate indefinitely. Smart electric vehicles will accept and store electricity that they get from the grid, which will include home generation from solar panels and small wind-capture devices. The electricity that these vehicles don't use will flow back into the grid, and the vehicles owners will receive rebates on their energy bills or discounts applied to the cost of battery swapping.

Although seemingly science fiction, a rudimentary system of this sort is already in the works in Israel. The project grew from an idea in which an entire "automotive ecosystem" would blanket the country with a network of smart charge spots so that drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime. Just as we might buy minutes in a mobile phone plan, drivers would purchase a plan  for unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month or pay as they go -- all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. Carrying the analogy further, drivers would pay relatively little from their cars because dealers, in partnership with power companies would make their money by selling electricity, the equivalent of phone companies selling minutes.

If all goes according to plan, a smart grid in Boulder, Colorado, will begin to function in 2010, powering plug-in hybrid vehicles that will extract power from the grid and feed it back or serve as back-up power sources for homes.

That's the future that we can design. It won't be easy, it won't be cheap, but it's a beautiful idea -- one that will enable us to leave the world a better than we found it.

Part I: The Smart Grid -- Electricity with a Brain

Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid