Electric cars and the smart grid

Energy & Sustainability
Electric cars and the smart grid

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

GE imagination at work

16 thoughts on “Electric cars and the smart grid

  1. Simon says:

    This isn’t a new idea. About 13 years ago now I worked for a company in the UK doing power systems for EVs and part of the system was the ability to push power back into the grid. The idea being to help even out local fluctuations when needed due to demand peaks and so on. The other very cool thing it could do was correct the power factor. I think the idea was you could use one of these things in a building with a large battery pack and it would correct the power factor back to 0 for the whole building.

    EVs are a funny thing. A lot of people think they are new but they’ve been around for a long, long time now. It seems to be one of those technologies waiting for that one giant breakthrough (storage I guess?) to suddenly make them a viable alternative to conventional vehicles.


  2. Chris Anderson says:

    The mangling of Shai Agassi’s name here (it’s misspelled twice, each differently) is really painful to see.

  3. urchin says:

    You reference Zap Cars (however briefly) in you entry, but I think you should read this article:


    Even though I realize it was a brief mention, I find scammers like Zap Cars very upsetting.


  4. fred says:

    as said, zap is a company of dubious quality.

    1. Chris Connors says:

      @fred and @Urchin I don’t know that much about the company,but found their website useful in the past. As with any business, it is worth looking into the background of any place you are spending your money with.


  5. hurf durf says:

    Well, with the sudden increase in demand for electricity, it sure is good we’re bringing on all these new power plants. Also glad we’re developing Yucca Mountain to safely store waste from the most environmentally-friendly practical method of mass electrical power–nuclear.

    I’m also glad our lovely moderators are inspecting our posts for double plus good content before allowing them through!

    1. hurf durf says:

      Maybe its just my paranoia… could have sworn my first trol… er, comment of the week was being approved before posting.

  6. Leroy Tills says:

    We are having a conference on Smart Grids called, Smart Grid America Forum on the 27th-28th of October in Austin Texas.

    Smart Grids are interconnected, so it is absolutely essential that the people involved in building each component know what all the others are doing, T&D people need to know what the wind power generators will expect their power lines to deliver. PHEV manufacturers need to know how resilient their batteries will have to be to deal with the strains of constant charging and de-charging to operate as de facto storage devices. Network designers working on communication systems need to know what will be plugged into their grid and make sure all the device are able to “speak the same language.”

    Smart Grid is essential for the survival of the utility. Liberalization of the utilities industry is gathering speed, giving customers a choice about who they buy electricity from. This, combined with rising energy prices, is causing an unprecedented level of switching, as customers seek lower rates and greener portfolios. With a carbon tax on the horizon, electric utilities know they must change their paradigm, and change quickly if they are to survive this shift in the market.

    Our conference incorporates all areas of Smart Grid, making our agenda the most-ambitious events in the country. Thus, we are perfectly placed to give key decision-makers and knowledge workers the opportunity to collectively find a common path forward, rather than split hair in over-specialized breakouts or listen to self congratulatory generalities at some events.

    Speaker companies who are confirmed are Austin Energy, Microsoft, Dept. of Energy/NETL, Constellations NewEnergy, TXU Energy, CentrePoint Energy, CPS Energy, Reliant Energy, Duke Energy, Salt River Project, Allegheny Power, Progress Energy Florida, Galvin Electricity Inst.

    Sponsors being Microsft, Comverge, Gita, PennEnergy, Electric Light & Power.

    For more details to register for this event, please contact Leroy Tills, Project Manager.


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