Electric cars and the smart grid

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.

405 Articles

By Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.

405 Articles

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Photo from Connors934on Flickr

A few years ago, I got really into electric cars. Not enough to build one, but certainly enough for me to do a pile of research, find a free electric truck for two students to work on, and to buy another electric car that sat in my garage for a few years until another student caught wind of it and restored it. Chad worked on that car during his lunch breaks for the last month or so of his Sophomore year, and got the car running well enough to drive it in the local Fourth of July Parade. His wiki about the build was a good exercise in project management and documentation. A few months later, he had the title cleared up, bought it from me, and drove it as his daily transportation for the remainder of his high school years.

Instead of a gas tank, Electric Vehicles (EVs) have batteries. The batteries store electrical energy which is then converted into mechanical energy to turn the wheels. You can do most of the local driving you need to do with an electric car. You can charge your car while you sleep or while you’re at work, and the vehicle has fewer parts than an internal combustion engine vehicle.

With the batteries in Chad’s car, it’s kind of like the smart grid. He can charge it with whatever system he wants, plugged into the wall, powered by solar panels, wind turbine, or by a water wheel. He can charge it when he wants, he can store the power until he needs it. If his utility company were set up for it, he could charge it at night when rates and demand are low and then store the electricity until the rates and demand are high and sell it back to the grid. The smart grid is in some senses akin to an electricity bank, where consumers can deposit and withdraw.

If Chad’s car was without batteries, and plugged directly into the current “dumb grid,” he could only drive it the distance of an extension cord (like an electric mower). Our houses now, for the most part, are like that electric car without batteries. If the power goes out, so does the stereo, TV, fridge, and the PS360n64.

So what’s the big deal about electric cars? Well, they may be the answer to a lot of the problems that our society faces now. Take a listen to what Shai Agassi has to say about the future and electric cars:

Shai Agassi is suddenly very hot. He was the covergeek on Wired recently, gave an excellent TED talk, and was on On Point the other day. His view of the role of electric vehicles ties into the smart grid, because EVs can help store the electricity that’s generated at night and provide a resource for it during the day. Electric cars are likely to be an important part of the solution. I’ve been following that community for a few years and I continue to like what I see. There are definitely a lot of rolling science projects, but now the money is starting to arrive on the scene to allow significant progress. AMP, Advanced Mechanical Products is setting up to convert a particular model of the Saturn to electric. Of course, now that GM is getting ready to cast that line off, it isn’t clear what’ll happen with the project. Maybe they’ll re-brand Saturn as an electric car company.

During my electric car obsession, I found a few good resources. Solo, by Noel Perrin, tells the story of the electric car and some of the industries realities and troubles in developing this technology in the 1990s. Electric Dreams, by Caroline Kettlewell, tells of a high school team who set out to convert an old vehicle from gas to electric. Jerry’s EV conversion is a site that chronicles his conversion of an old Mazda. Zap Electric Cars has a number of EVs for sale, and they seem to know the quirks of the vehicles on the road. Chad and his father brought me along to what appears to have been the last Tour de Sol, a great weekend conference, workshop, rally, and auto show based around alternate energy systems. It rained all weekend, but we had a good time and got lots of information.

With electric cars, our grid gains a crucial element that it doesn’t have now: storage capability. The grid we plug into today only works when power plants are generating and people are drawing juice.

With the smart grid, devices like appliances will need to be able to turn on and off based on the relative availability of power through some rules-based networked interface. We could set our air conditioner to cycle down when power is more expensive, and ramp up when rates are low. This should have the effect of reducing demand during peak times. Customers are encouraged and financially-rewarded for reducing and rescheduling their electricity use.

NPR has an in-depth study of the subject of smart grid, which is worth checking out. I found the angle on the increased capacity and how it affects green power generation to be both interesting and troublesome.

As the discussion about renewable electricity generation heats up, it seems that a lot of people are talking about transmitting this green power from the sun belt or wind belt to the country’s population centers. This may not work out so well, as electricity really does not like to travel very far. Possibly a more effective way for communities to deal with their electricity needs is to conserve. Each household and business could reduce their electricity usage, then we could be more comfortable and less dependent on distant generation and transmission schemes.

Generating your own electricity at home and storing it in your plugged-in vehicle may be the shortest transmission distance we need.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of posts sponsored by GE. GE had nothing to do with the content of the article and no control over Make: Online editorial. -Gareth

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