For some people, electric cars are a glimpse of a utopian future where no fossil fuels are burnt, the air is clean, and your car is recharged from energy generated by photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of your home.
For others, electric cars herald the dawn of a dark period in history where increased electric demand from recharging electric cars cripples the utility grid, causing frequent brownouts and prompting utility companies to burn more — not less — fossil fuels to keep up with demand.
Here at Transport Evolved, we like the first vision of the electric car future much better than the second. So too it appears, does the majority of automakers and U.S. utility companies.
That’s why General Motors, Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota — along with fifteen regional U.S. utility companies and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) — are working to develop a grid-connected communication system that ensures there’s always enough power to go around.
Announced yesterday, the multi-company collaboration led by the EPRI seeks to build on existing smart grid technologies and vehicle telematics system to develop software that allows utility companies to control not only when electric car charge, but perhaps eventually the rate at which they charge.
It would then be deployed as an opt-in program for electric car owners, with potential financial rewards or perks offered for those who did opt-in to the program.
With the expressed permission of the electric car owner, data would be shared between the onboard telematics provider for their car and the utility company. As well as detail if the car was plugged in or not, the system would know how full the car’s battery pack was as well as any future departure times set by the owner.
At times of peak demand when the grid was at or near capacity, the utility companies could then request partner automakers to halt charging on some or all of the cars plugged in and opted in to the program, reducing demand on the grid.
Then, when grid demand was lower or when grid capacity had increased, the utility company could then send the OK for cars to resume charging. At no point would communication occur directly between the car and the utility company: the respective telematics provider for each automaker would act as an intermediary.
While the initial goal of the project is fairly modest, it will also define a set of industry-wide protocols which can be built into all electric vehicles and used by all utility companies to ensure that grid demands are kept to a minimum and electric cars always have enough charge to meet their owners’ needs.
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking this new project is the first time automakers and utility companies have worked together on smoothing out demand on the electrical grid, the idea of interconnected electric cars isn’t new.
Better Place, the now-bankrupt firm which failed in its attempt to offer an holistic electric vehicle infrastructure and battery swap program throughout the State of Israel, used a complex smart grid system to help inform the state-run utility company of when to expect increased power demand.
Similar to the project unveiled this week, it too could dynamically control when and how each of the Renault Fluence Z.E. cars connected to the service charged but this particular benefit of the Better Place model was dramatically and tragically overlooked by most.
In the U.S., General Motors has been running its own test projects involving its OnStar remote telematics service and local utility companies for several years, although its project has been restricted to a small test fleet of cars as part of its Pecan Street research project.
Here at Transport Evolved, we like the idea of electric cars being able to help supplement the power needed by electrical grids, perhaps even storing and feeding back power to the grid as required in peak demand periods. But we also think it’s worth noting that of those automakers involved in the project, the two best known electric automakers — Nissan and Tesla Motors — are suspiciously absent from the pilot project. Moreover, two of the participants — Honda and Toyota — are known for their mistrust of electric vehicle technology and are poised to cease selling electric vehicles altogether in favour of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Do you think letting your utility company control when and how your electric car charges is a useful bonus to electric vehicle ownership, or do you think it will be an unnecessary burden that is bound to backfire one day? Worse still, is it yet another security vulnerability waiting for clever hackers to exploit it?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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