Green Update: Smart Grids and the Car Industry

Parking and charging in the future, according to Siemens

The idea of the smart electrical grid is to deliver sustainable, economical electric power by optimizing supply and demand. At least that’s my definition after looking at a bunch of complicated and contradictory others.

The future of the EV is clearly tied to the development of the smart grid, even after the other problems of public acceptance—high price, reliability and the cost and convenience of charging—get solved.

Typically, the U.S. has no kind of master plan to coordinate or encourage charging infrastructure. EV buyers now have to rely on home charging, fast DC chargers aren’t supported by the automakers (and cost $80K each), and the powerful Society of Automotive Engineers can’t even agree on a common charging system and port.

The smart grid will be no workaround for such bureaucratic problems, but automakers and governments are beginning to work on other kinds of solutions to get public acceptance. Two are notable.

GM Smart Grid PilotGM announced that its OnStar group will pilot a project to monitor and manage energy use by a group of Chevrolet Volts leased to General Electric. GE agreed to purchase some 12,000 Volts by 2015. The project will

provide the utility with overall charge level as well as charging history—by time and location—for the Volt pilot fleet, without the vehicles having to connect to a charging station. This will give the utility better insight for forecasting demand, setting rates and determining the best location for charging infrastructure.

OnStar will allow the utility to actively manage EV charging for those who opt in to the service. The utility can then reduce peak loads by offering discounts or other incentives to encourage drivers to charge their EVs when overall electricity demand is lowest, typically in the early morning hours.

Sounds like a good first step to building a better charging infrastructure.

South Korea is going much further. Since the country imports all its coal, oil and gas, it has a powerful motivation to work toward energy efficiency. Which it is doing by creating a fully integrated smart grid to be online by 2030.

Besides putting smart appliances into homes and businesses, the goal is to have 2.5 million EVs on the road with 27,140 charging stations. South Korea wants to capture 30 percent of the global smart grid market, creating “50,000 annual jobs” and saving $46 billion in imported energy and generation costs.

Don’t laugh at these guys; look at what happened with Hyundai.

The next phase of hybrid and EV development will be to use the cars as generators and/or providers of AC power from the battery for emergency and household use. Kind of a smart grid on wheels, you might say. The Nissan Leaf’s battery, after all, has a capacity of 2,400 watts, enough “to supply all the electricity you need for a regular household for two days,” and you recharge at night when rates are cheap.

Why can’t the U.S. get smart about the smart grid? Do we always have to leave large public projects to the sporadic, piecemeal efforts of the private sector?

Should the government be more involved in smart grid development? Give us your opinion.


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  1. In my area, the power grid is unreliable and a puff of breeze will knock out power for days. We had a relatively minor thunderstorm go through monday last week, and there were still several large city areas running on portable generators as late as the Friday after the event. Detroit Edison is the culprit and is notorious for poor maintenance and Armageddon-like power failures that they seem unable to fix. So my conclusion is that large urban utilities like Detroit Edison don’t maintain what they have now and certainly couldn’t field a world-class smart grid… any price.

  2. Governments usually lead with great ideas and private industry jumps in when it sees profit potential. Government rarely does anything well, private industry usually waits, assesses the problems and usually makes the idea better. The problem I see in your question is your lead sentence to this piece. The government can neither deliver nor optimize without private intervention. Industry won’t either unless the carrot is big and sweet enough for them to take a bite. Now we know that the government has nothing big or sweet to offer and can’t even pay its debts. With no one eager to provide the incentives, this great idea goes nowhere, unless a profit potential of gargantuan proportions manifests itself in the next couple years.

    The truly sad part here is that great innovators and copy cats such as the Asians will soon be in our shoes and with no market for their goods and giant unemployment problems of their own on the horizon, in addition to political instability, it becomes crystal clear to everyone that the real economic lynchpin of the world is still the USA and we are down with a bad, bad virus and we’re destined to spread it to the rest of the world. Too bad.

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