Listen to some energy advisors and electric car skeptics, and you’ll hear the claim that global energy networks are about to be brought to their knees by poorly maintained electrical grids struggling to keep up with the demand of the electric car revolution. Overwhelmed by the demands of thousands of plug-in cars all trying to charge at the same time we’re told, entire power grids will stop functioning, plunging cities around the world into week-long brown-outs as power companies struggle to keep up with demand.
Luckily, those predictions are looking far less likely than they once did, thanks in part to a smart grid technology demonstration which took place last week in California, where utility companies and automakers demonstrated technology that enables utility companies to control the recharging habits of electric cars in order to ensure brownouts never happen. Combined with an ongoing, successful pilot project in Delaware where a fleet of electric cars are being used to help smooth out the delta between peak and off-peak energy usage, the nightmarish vision of an electrical grid crippled by electric car charging seems less likely than ever before.
As USAToday reports, a successful demonstration took place at the Sacramento Municipal Utility Districts Customer Service Centre in California last week in which some of the largest utility companies in the U.S. demonstrated how they could remotely stop and start customers’ electric car charge cycles in direct response to grid demand. Working alongside, Ford, BMW, Honda, Chrysler, General motors, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, the utility companies were able to use technology designed by Sumitomo Electric to securely and remotely send start and stop charging commands to each vehicle.
The idea, Ford explains, is to ensure that there are never any car-induced brownouts. By monitoring grid demand and knowing how many cars are plugged in and charging at any given point, the utility company can increase or decrease demand on its grid by simply sending charge start or charge stop commands to cars. Because the grid is aware of the location of each car, it can even manage the charging of electric cars in specific neighbourhoods when demand on the grid becomes too high, suspending charging until grid demand has lessened.
While the majority of plug-in car owners make use of cheaper night-time electricity rates to charge their cars, larger numbers of plug-in cars on the roads increases the likelihood that some electric cars will be plugged in and charging during peak energy demand periods, when utility companies are already operating a high percentage of their total capacity.
In those scenarios, the risk of grid brownout is far higher.
“The demo showed the vehicles responding to a request from the grid to stop charging, and then responding to another request to start charging again,” said John Cangany of Ford, highlighting the promise of the technology in a wider environment moving forward.
Of course, those reading may worry about passing total control of their car over to the utility company. Luckily however, like previous smart grid electric car demonstration projects, last week’s demonstration included a very important aspect to prevent the nightmare scenario of not having enough range for the next trip: user permission.
That’s why last week’s multi-utility test was primarily to test a notification and permission system designed to ask car owners for their consent to stop charging, sending a message to each affected owner for their approval before charging was stopped. That way, no-one is left without a charge when they need it.
In a separate but related piece of news from Delaware on the other side of the U.S., a fleet of MINI-E Electric cars proven successful in aiding the local utility grid in periods of peak demand by feeding back power to the grid via specially-designed two-way on-board chargers.
As GreenCarReports details, the test program — which has been running now for many months at the University of Delaware — pulls electricity from the grid during periods of low demand to charge up a fleet of at least nine specially-modified plug-in cars, including nine MINI E electric cars, three specially-converted Scion xB tall wagons and a Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid. That electricity is then sold back to the grid during peak demand periods.
While local utility PJM Interconnection required the test fleet to have a ‘generation’ capacity of at least 100 kilowatts in order to be recognised as a ‘power plant,’ the additional cost of adding two-way power capabilities to production electric cars would be around $200 per vehicle. Provided utility companies were also aligned to treat vehicle-to-grid electric cars in the same way as homes with on-site micro-generation like photovoltaics or wind turbines, electric car owners could utilise their car’s additional battery capacity to help the local grid stay healthy for very little extra outlay.
Whats more, there’s money to be made, with the University of Delaware earning upwards of $110 per car each month by selling power purchased during off-peak periods back to the grid in high-demand periods.
The real question however isn’t one of technology. It’s one of human nature: while some plug-in owners would be more than happy to use either technology, we’re sure an equal number would fear being left stranded in an emergency.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.