Not the Only Car-of-the-future Looking for a Handout

Michael Giberson

Jeffrey Ball at the WSJ’s Environmental Capital blog describes Xcel Energy’s first steps in bringing Vehicle-to-grid power into its SmartGridCity effort in Boulder, Colorado:

So far, it’s pretty small potatoes, involving exactly one car and one plug. But boosters say it has the potential to revolutionize – and revitalize — our aging power grid.

Here’s what’s happened so far: Xcel Energy, Inc. spent $30,000 to convert a Ford Escape hybrid into a plug-in electric car. The utility gave the SUV to the chancellor at the University of Colorado, whose residence is a test site for Xcel’s “SmartGridCity” project, a two-year experiment in modernizing the power grid.

The chancellor’s vehicle draws power in part from the solar panels on his roof. But that’s not the exciting part. The car also sends stored power from its battery back to the grid, thanks to a small wind-turbine inverter the Xcel engineers grafted onto the SUV.

This is the first commercial test of what’s known as vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, technology. Within a few months, Xcel will add three Toyota Priuses from Boulder County’s government fleet to the V2G experiment.

The core value opportunity that V2G is chasing:

According to Xcel, the average hybrid driver pulls into his garage at night with his battery still two-thirds full. That means it contains about 8 kilowatt hours of stored energy, enough to power eight homes for an hour. Xcel engineers figure they can draw down this power during peak usage – say at 5 p.m. on a sticky summer day. Then they can reverse course and have the grid send power back into the car during the low-demand hours in the middle of the night, so the battery is fully juiced for the driver’s morning commute.

What next? Xcel is looking for funding:

So far, Xcel has funded this project on its own. It’s looking now for help from the federal government, with the goal of adding 500 more cars to the V2G test over the next several years. But the utility may have to get in line. This isn’t the only car-of-the-future looking for a handout.

Actually, I wouldn’t much mind funding basic research into cars-of-the-future. On the other hand, funding carmakers-stuck-in-the-past doesn’t seem like such a deal.


6 thoughts on “Not the Only Car-of-the-future Looking for a Handout

  1. I suppose it would be “picky” to note that Xcel thereby doubled the price of the base Escape hybrid, which was already 50% more expensive than the base Escape.

    The recent increases in the CAFE standards will effectively force plug hybrid technology into the market. Ultimately, the incremental cost of the plug hybrids will drop, though it is hard to guess how low they will get.

    Question: Which comes first: V2G or Real Time Pricing?

  2. Note that the usual journalistic equivalence of 1kW = 1 home is stretched a little too far here. The equivalence is roughly valid on energy, not on capacity. I like to point out that 1kW is not enough to power most hand-held hair dryers for even a minute. The 1kW-to-1-home equivalence implies an average monthly residential consumption of 730kWh, which is perhaps a little low, and is equivalent to 1kW around the clock. But when the air conditioner is running on that hot, sticky summer afternoon the household demand is much higher than 1kW. The author takes it too far by narrowing it down to a single hour, especially just before talking about the peak day.

    Most houses that could afford a plug-in hybrid would probably have more than 8kW in peak load, so it’s not clear that the car could supply one hour’s worth of *energy* to even one house on peak, or to sustain that level of electrical power output for an hour.

    Now, I know that the WSJ writer didn’t really say that a plug-in hybrid with 8kWh could cover the power demand of 8 houses on a peak day, but he also didn’t make it clear that he understands anything different.

  3. Presuming, of course, that one does not need one’s vehicle until it is recharged. One major reason for owning a private vehicle is the convenience.

  4. Another completely impractical proposal that involves too much integration and control to ever work in the real world.

    Why would any battery-equipped car owner allow a deep drawdown?

    More gimmackry to avoid the real problem of not enough new generating plant construction.

  5. Another completely impractical proposal that involves too much integration and control to ever work in the real world.

    Why would any battery-equipped car owner allow a deep drawdown?

    More gimmackry to avoid the real problem of not enough new generating plant construction.

  6. Keep in mind that a plug-in hybrid can run on gasoline, so the decision to return power to the grid is mainly economic. All that is really required for coordination is a dynamic locational price signal. Machine response to the price signal could be customized and automated. For a typical house on a peak day IF the automobile is plugged up and available, a practical level of power output from the car would most likely just reduce the demand of the home it’s plugged into, and may not reverse the flow of energy to the house. At worst, a neighborhood with a reasonable penetration of these things would have slightly reduced net demand on its distribution feeder, not a sudden rush of power back up the line. This should not be particularly problematic for the power system; it’s just price response.

    The key is that on a *practical* power-output and demand basis this is not as big a deal as the WSJ article makes it seem.

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