The Car Electric-Grid Utopia, With Caveats

The vision of hundreds of thousands of electric cars buzzing along American highways and byways makes most utility companies downright giddy. It’s not just the opportunity sell a lot more electricity that gets them excited. “We think there’s a fundamental game-changer here. And that’s energy storage,” said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison. “For the first time in 120 years in our industry, the commodity we make we may no longer have to make and consume simultaneously.”

Because the grid is currently unable to store energy, utilities are forced to build and maintain base load stations—to provide the majority of power—as well as facilities to handle peak loads during period of high energy demand. These “peakers,” which run during summer months when our air conditioners are blasting for example, are inefficient, expensive, go unused 90 percent of the time, put a strain on transmission and distribution systems, and have less ability to utilize renewable energies. But what if we take the base load energy, and fill up mobile energy storage devices—more commonly known as hybrid or electric car batteries—during off-peak hours? We could then put that energy to good use: transporting people from Point A to Point B in their cars. The practice of using more energy when it’s available but not usually in high-demand is called “valley-filling.”

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been studying the ramifications of valley-filling and gas-electric hybrids that come equipped to take a charge via a plug. “We set out to study how much power the United States power grid could supply vehicles today,” said Robert Pratt, manager of the Lab’s GridWise Program. Pratt puts that number at about 70 percent of U.S. cars with the energy we can generate and deliver today. “That’s half of our foreign oil. That’s a number that rocks you back in your chair.”

The Car as Electric Device

Electric utility managers go from giddy to euphoric when this idea is taken to the next stage: the creation of two-way energy system between cars and the grid. Pratt and his fellow researchers estimate that all the energy needs for the entire United States could be run for five hours from a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids, if those vehicles held enough battery energy to run a vehicle in all-electric mode for 33 miles. More importantly, the ability to pull energy from vehicles during high usage periods could greatly reduce (or “shave”) the peaks. Pratt refers to the ability to store energy and to stop running peaking plants as “the holy grail for the grid.”

In this utopian vision of cars and the electric grid, the electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid becomes like another appliance in the home. Your home’s energy management system doesn’t just manage your car, but your dishwasher, your washing machine, your air conditioning system, and your home energy storage system. “As part of the whole system, the car will be just one component,” said Efrain Ornelas, environmental technical supervisor at Pacific Gas and Electric’s Clean Air Transportation Department. Ornelas looks to a day in the near future when customers will be able to program a home energy system to charge your car from the grid only when it makes sense for you. “Maybe at a point when the price of grid electricity is competitive with gasoline, you may not want to necessarily charge the vehicle. It all comes down to customer choice.”

Back to Earth

If the opportunity represented by the merger of cars and the electric grid into a single energy system is profound, the challenges are just as vast. “There’s a lot of talk about vehicle-to-grid,” said Kjaer. “We get all spun up about how exciting this is. Vehicle to grid is kind of like hydrogen and fuel cells. It’s not just around the corner.” Kjaer can easily rattle off a laundry list of problems to be solved before the car-grid utopia becomes a reality, most notably the current lack of plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles on the market; the lack of next-generation car batteries; the lack of a smart grid that can move energy back and forth; and the lack of common codes and standards for all of these things. He said, “Today, every single battery in every single car from every single automaker and every single driver is different.” On top of that, there are at least six different lithium ion battery technologies competing for prominence in the hybrid market.

Then, add all the IT and communications complexities of exchanging and pricing a two-way energy system throughout the daily cycle. “The utility will want to turn some cars on as soon as they get home on a day that’s not too hot,” said Pratt. “As the evening wears on, and the normal electric load from buildings drops, you’re turning more and more cars on. This is a very nuanced thing. And the current time of use block rate doesn’t communicate with any nuance.” The system will need to facilitate communication “handshakes” between cars and the grid, while balancing the relative state-of-charge of each car, and how urgently the owner of that car wants the juice.

None of this has been worked out yet. PGE’s Ornelas said, “The biggest area we need to focus on is codes and standards. We need to work with the automobile companies on how their vehicles are going to interconnect with the grid, and how those vehicles are going to connect with a smart metering systems that we’re implementing.”

First Things First

Given these challenges, attempts to create a car battery swapping systems, like the one being attempted by Israel’s Project Better Place, seem quixotic. “With battery swap-outs, you’re dealing with 300 pounds of batteries and every one is different,” said Kjaer. “You’ve got liability issues. You have issues around how that battery has been consumed by the previous driver. It’s not there today because the technology is not mature and we don’t have standardization.”

Kjaer believes the first priority is to simply put plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles on the road in enough volume to reduce cost and spawn successive generations of technology innovation, while establishing standardization along the way. Industry observers expect the first plug-in hybrids around 2011 or 2012, and it’s hard to predict if they will take as long as today’s gasoline hybrid to penetrate the market. After eight years in the U.S. market, hybrids comprise a little more than two percent of new car sales. “The big mystery here is how fast these vehicles going to penetrate,” said Robert Pratt of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “The answer is nobody knows.” said Pratt.

Ed Kjaer, Robert Pratt, and Efrain Ornelas participated in a panel discussion at Auto FutureTech, March 2008, in Vancouver, British Columbia. The panel was moderated by Donna LeClair, chief technology officer, BC Hydro.

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  • uktiger

    Kind gentlemen at General Motors. Killing the EV1 was obviously a wise, well reasoned and insightful decision at the time.

    Perhaps it may be beneficial to revisit the business decision given the current regulatory and energy market that we find ourselves in at present. Re-introducing the legacy product known as the EV1 could assist dealers and consumers in the adaptation to electrification of the car.

    Translation…. hey dummies, you have a good product in EV1. Admit you made a huge freaking blunder and reintroduce it. A 120 mile range NiMH battery vehicle is a hell of a lot better than your vapour-ware VOLT that has exactly two chances of getting launched 1. Slim and 2. None.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    That picture made me sad to look at 🙁 The EV1 in the picture looks exactly like mine did when I used to return from trips back to the Lot 1 EV parking at LAX.
    I respectfully disagree with uktiger. The EV1 was awesome in 1999 as it would be today. It did not deserve to be killed. Had they even done a modicum of design improvements (improved battery cooling), it would have been a 200 mile per charge vehicle, even using NiMH batteries.
    I do agree that GM should build it again. Too bad they closed down the plant where they built it. Maybe if they had sold the vehicles that plant made, they could have kept the plant open and the workers employed -duh.

  • Hal Howell

    I saw the movie and have to admit the EV-1 was a good product for its time. The reason they leased it was that very few if any could have afforded it as it was.
    The Volt is not vaporware and should be a huge advance for electric cars when it is introduced.
    As I understand it, the team that designed the EV-1 are also at work on the Volt. So maybe it wasn’t quite the boondoggle everyone thinks. Also, the timing wasn’t quite right in 1999. Gas was still too cheap for anyone to seriously consider a car like the EV-1. Too many people still drive gas hogs even now as it is. Toyota took the next step with the Prius and showed how to really do it. We can’t and won’t get rid of gasoline entirely anytime soon since there are literally millions of ICE cars on the road. Global warming is a hoax intended to destroy American auto makers. I drive a Prius for its fuel savings (my wife drives a Yaris Liftback) so gas is not that big of an expense. However, I look forward to getting a Volt in order to save gas and move to an electric vehicle depending on the price.

  • uktiger

    VOLT will never see the road. The prototype has a golf cart motor in it, maybe you can buy that one.

    Global warming a hoax to kill the automakers? Not sure I follow the logic there. Forget global warming, how about trade deficits. Last year the US purchased $500 billion of oil from the middle-east. At this pace we will bankrupt the country long before global warming kills humanity.

  • steved28

    Yes, and the personal computer was a plot to kill the typewriter, pleeeez. Keep up or move over, that’s the message to the American auto industry. They make enough excuses on their own, they don’t need yours.

  • TD

    Interesting article. Its about time that people are talking seriously about distributed power systems.

    In addition to having plug-in hybrids storing energy for the grid, solar panels, ground heat pumps and small wind turbines can be added to every house. Energy can also be stored mechanically as well as in batteries by winding springs, raising a weight or filling a water bladder which can be slowly unwound, lowered or drained to turn a generator when the energy is required. The technology is available to solve our energy problems in 10 years, if we collectively decided to spend several hundred billion dollars a year on renewable energy instead of on the military.

    Of course it doesn’t help that a distributed power generation system and electric cars do not directly benefit the two very powerful industries of energy and oil.

  • Donald

    Filling the valleys is easy to understand, but using my vehicle’s charge while I’m at work is scary. Imagine a need surge during the day so your car’s battery discharges to supply the need. You are then finished with work get in your car to drive home and find your battery flat. Hey, my boss would like that idea.

  • Jeff

    Since we will be re-charging at night it will make power generation much more efficient compared to drawing power during peak load times in the day. Cooler air temps at night make cooling a power plant less expensive then too. All this is a good thing.

    Oh ya! THE VOLT IS VAPOR WARE UNTIL THEY START SHOWING UP AT DEALERS! A huge PR play for now, nothing else. I will be one of the first to purchase one if they ever hit the street.

  • Anonymous

    The idea that the Chevy Volt is vaporware seems far fetched. I believe by July, three months from now, mules with the Volt powertrain including the Lithium Ion battery pack, will be available for reporters to evaluate. Then these questions will be answered: (1) is the zero to sixty time less than 9 seconds? (2) Is the all electric range greater than 32 miles, and (3) if driven 400 miles in a day, and then refueled, what is the gas mileage, over 50? And in July if these are all answered in the affirmative, then the Volt is the real deal, even if the initial price is upwards of $40,000.

  • Jerome

    “HAL” does Dick Cheney know that someone let Georgie have access to the internet? Global Warming a hoax?

    Vaporware = something talked about and promised but never delivered on…… so far the VOLT is vaporware…..

    Lastly Anonymous – why does a vehicle need to go 0-60 in under 9 seconds? Seriously? Do we need to fly onto roadways and highways like we are leaving the pits @ Daytona racetrack?

    So until we as a country change our driving habits the vocal minority will continued to get shoveled the “No, seriously, the VOLT is coming” garbage while the execs hope that the government either bails them out with help or gasoline gets subsidized…… now is the time to change. Hal – I’d start with your sources of information!

  • Armand

    I can’t imagine in this day and age someone is actually stupid enough to think Global Warming is a hoax to drive the US automakers out of business. Un-freaking-believeable.

    What’s next Hal? Dinasour fossils were put here on this plane to challenge our thinking and faith?

    Go watch ZEITGEIST…learn something.

  • Paul Rivers

    “Lastly Anonymous – why does a vehicle need to go 0-60 in under 9 seconds?”

    Because we need a car that can handle highway entrance ramps. You need to be able to go from stopped at the lights to 50mph by the time you hit the highway. If you can’t, you risk getting run off the road or creamed by oncoming traffic.

  • Shines

    Car grid power. I like it… I pull in the driveway after commuting home (having charged my hybrid battering braking while getting off the freeway(yes I know this is an over-simplification)). I plug in my car to my house. It cuts the peak energy of me turning on the lights, the home AC to cool it down and the oven to start dinner. Later in the evening while I’m asleep and it is past peak energy hours, my house recharges my hybrid battery for the next day (yes and forget plugging in at work – I’m not letting my office suck the power from my hybrid ;-).
    I’m not really worried about global warming. I’m more worried about our dependence on foreign oil – especially since the oil money seems to be paying for terrorism (Some of the extremists in Iran; Iraq; Saudi Arabia?).
    I’m hopefull our ingenuity will be creating more non-oil energy savings in the future.
    And the Volt… See the other article? GM is starting LI battery testing. The Volt may become real after all.

  • uktiger

    GM sold 35 Saturn hybrid-lite systems. American automakers are not serious about increasing fuel efficiency.

    The roads are owned by all the people. A tax on gross vehicle weight would halt the arms race of ” I need a bigger and faster car so I don’t get run over”.

    Europe gets along quite nicely with 50 MPG smaller vehicles.

  • AlexK

    dude, he did say that the ev1 was a good idea. he did not say that it was good that it was killed. so you have nothing to disagree about with him.

  • Dave99

    reply to Jeff:
    How much exactly do the lower air temps at night help cool powerplants? As far as I know, most powerplants are water-cooled, and I would assume that these bodies of water would be large enough to mostly damp out the temperature transients created by warm days/cold nights. (I’m not studied up on lake/river temperature variations, so this could be off)

    response to those calling the Volt a hoax:
    This is the single-most exciting project in the auto industry right now, and many of the best engineers have applied to work on this vehicle (from GM as well as other companies). From what I know, GM has quite an investment in the Volt (including advertising/branding), to not come through on this vehicle would be a tremendous waste of resources.

  • Ross Nicholson

    GM is taking a risk! But is the risk they’re taking appropriate? I don’t think so. Here’s why:
    1. The Volt is not aerodynamic. Wind tunnel tests were conducted only after the stylist? Surely we have an optimum shape for an automobile after so many years of research! GM doesn’t know what that shape is, unfortunately.
    2. The Volt is bound to be suboptimal technologically, and risk takers are willing to bear that risk for GM, so why should GM assume that risk? Why test batteries and delay any sales for two years?
    3. The Volt is too technologically complicated. The few people who want a Volt now, beta testers, would make do with no AC, no stereo, no cup-holders, etc., etc., etc. Why supply what no one demands? It’s not a pick-up truck, boys.
    4. The price is going to be too high. With the money saved on testing and leaving off fancy add-ons, with the risks assumed by the eager buyers, GM could sell the Volt for much less. Just make a good faith effort and have early adopters sign a release.
    5. GM’s attitude is bad. They don’t hope to profit, yet they suck up all the risk onto themselves, then add more with needless complexity nobody wants? If they don’t smell the highest profits above any other company in the world from this work, then they should get out and stay out.

  • Dave99

    Ross, first, I do agree they are taking a risk, but I what Dr. Larry Burns said when I saw him speak at U-M sums it up quite nicely, “I don’t see problems, I see opportunities.” Call me an optimist if you want but I really hope the Volt comes through, and am glad to see GM challenging itself.

    Now, to address your comments:
    1. After our junior-level mechanical engineering lab using wind tunnels, I’m not going to start to question the aero design without CFD. This is coming from someone who did well in fluid dynamics… There are a lot of things that play into aerodynamics besides only gross shape. For example, having a flat underbody helps quite a bit, while the turbulent flow within the engine compartment and around the wheels is also important.
    2. Could you list the technologies being used along with the more optimal variants? The biggest question right now are the batteries, which are being developed by many PhD’s at A123 and LG Chem. As far as the ICE, a 1.0L turbo is definitely not suboptimal. The next question: how much high-strength steel and aluminum will they be using for weight reduction? They are testing batteries for two years because the Li-ion technology isn’t ready to plug-and-play, it is evolving (currently Ni-MH is used in hybrid vehicles almost exclusively). They need to make sure to get it right before selling it to the public – remember the Pinto?
    3. Too technologically complicated? The aerospace industry is way more complicated than automobiles. If you want technologically complicated, go to Boeing, Lockheed, or NASA JPL. I also don’t think with your statement about people willing to settle with bare minimums is representative of the customer base for this car.
    4. GM could do that, but then when the cars have a high failure rate, people would blame it on “poor American engineering” and strengthen the stereotype (more on this – as of last summer, Ford had eliminated the quality gap with Toyota, based on JD Power reports, while both were still behind Honda).
    5. Who do you know at GM with this attitude?

  • Hal Howell

    Popular Mechanics did a cost analysis of the Prius, Plug-in Prius, Tesla and Volt. After all was said and done the Volt beat the Prius on a 200 mile trip by .03 a gallon! The difference between the $22,000 Prius and the nearly $30,000 (projected price) Volt was nearly zip! However, the 40 mile trip is where the the Volt beat the Prius. Same story for the Plug-in Prius. It only shined on short trips when it ran on electricity only. However, the price to upgrade a Prius to plug-in capability was $10,000! That’s quite a lot to save a few cents at the pump. In reality, the standard Prius came out as the savings champ of the three when price was taken into account. The only way the plug-in Prius and Volt are better deals is if someone GAVE you one!
    As for the Tesla, it cost the least to drive except for the $98,000 price tag!
    So, if you want to save money at the pump, buy a Prius and move on. Unless the Volt is priced aggressively its not going to be the success it deserves.
    Another promising vehicle is the Air Car. It runs on highly compressed air and has a 200 mile range. It takes only 3 minutes to refill and has a zero pollution factor. Price for the car? They are talking of $18,000! It has a top speed of 98 mph and very nearly zero maintenance (an oil change once every 50,000 as a matter of fact).

  • Armand

    Except that the Volt DOESN’T EXIST.

    Howell, you really need to understand the concept of comparing REAL HARDWARE TO REAL HARDWARE…not VAPORWARE.

    It’s like saying the Airbus A9000 (which doesn’t exist) gets 50% better range than the current A340’s.

    Utterly pointless…

  • Dave99

    Do some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the energy storage in the AirCar and let me know how they turn out / compare to mine (which don’t correlate with the AirCar projections). Imagine transferring enough mechanical power to propel a car two-hundred miles in three minutes, that in itself sounds fishy. (gasoline can do this because the energy is stored in chemical bonds) Also, it DOESN’T have a zero pollution factor unless that compressed air is made with solar/wind/hydro/nuclear power. Likely the compressed air will come from an air compressor that runs on gasoline.

    In my eyes, the Volt doesn’t have the exact same target market as the Prius, so it is hard to compare the two. The Volt will be more stylish, while I’ve heard some people refer to the Prius as the Birkenstock of cars. Until someone brings some hard market research data to the table, all statements about sales projections (including mine) are speculation and opinion.

    If you all don’t think these automotive engineers know anything, you should visit SAE World Congress next week and participate in a few technical presentations:

    Everyone yells “vaporware” around here. Don’t you understand the idea of “under development”? No, its not yet made, but it is being worked on with the full intention of bringing it to the market.

  • Fred Linn

    Warfare is basically a time-space problem, and in that respect warfare and marketing have a lot in common.

    According to Confederate States General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most successful cavalry leaders in history, if you want to win a battle, “Get there first with the most.”

    It is often the momentum of being the first in the field that carries the day. Being first in the field allows the commander to direct the thrust of the battle and relegates the enemy to reacting to initial thrusts, and losing the advantage of deciding the direction of force—-they are on the defensive.

    In many respects, marketing is exactly the same. To wait too long is to lose the momentum of thrust and be relegated to simply reacting to new developments with too little, too late.

    “You have to believe in yourself.”—-Sun Tzu

    Make it work and get it in the field……….you can always refine later.

  • Peter Oppewall

    There’s an important conference coming up May 28-29
    titled “Enabling Electric & Hybrid Vehicles Summit 2008”
    where some of these issues will be discussed by industry insiders,
    including GM and Project Better Place representatives.

    It remains to be seen which technology will prevail regarding recharging of plug-in hybrids and EV’s. For more information on the present state of vehicle recharging infrastructure in the US, and a link to this symposium visit

  • Greg

    Every time I pass a gas station I want to say FU** YOU to the oil conpanies, I raise my middle finger and salute them. How much profit is enough. At $3.60 a gallon for regular fuel it’s a shame. I hope that the people can see that they (the oil companies) will bankrupt the small guys. We have the tech. to make a simple electric cars. PLEASE somebody make an electric car for the masses and show the oil companies we don’t need them!!! We are a little over 4% of the worlds population and use %25 to %30 of the worlds oil (mostly from the middle east). They are laughing all the way to the bank.

  • Brian Curnow

    On average Cars spend 80% of the time parked in the Sun. Why not make use of all that wasted solar energy to trickle charge Hybrid car batteries?

    Arrays of solar cells molded into the roof or placed on the rear parcel shelf would provide a useful additional source of energy for future hybrids – and remember that would be FREE energy.

    At this stage trickle charging by itself would not provide enough energy to entirely charge hybrid car batteries – but who knows what might be practical in the future?

  • Darrell D Lambson

    I never knew..Hillary has the only RIGHT view ( Obama and McLame want to keep OPEC flowing too our oblivion!

    Hillary Clinton favors an almost identical increase in fuel efficiency standards, but her plan offers an array of incentives for hybrid buyers and manufacturers. One such proposal would give a tax credit of up to $10,000 toward the purchase of a plug-in hybrid or the retrofitting of an existing hybrid to incorporate plug-in technology.)

    Her view of our being held hostage by OPEC; is that it must be changed and focused on Electric/flex fuel (generator for extended range) for everyday use which would cut 80% of our dependence on foreign oil and we must save Anwar oil for National Security and only use it for
    planes, trains, heavy trucks (semi’s), Military, pickups when needed and small engines. Then we can put those CREEPS back to herding GOATS and CAMELS where they belong!

    If Bush would of INVADED ENERGY INDEPENDENCE instead of Iraq;
    and put the $5Trillion He added to our National Debt….. That Stupid A$$hole would of had a REAL LEGACY and I hate to say…might of been the best President in our Nations History!!!
    Take A Look At What We Could be Driving…..
    Jay Leno was a total skeptic of electric cars until he got hold of a Tesla; because he only related electric cars to His 1909 Electric Car..check it out!

    .. |/// “Thank GOD”
    .. ~ ~ // “only 9 MORE MONTHS”
    .. (/ @ @ /) of~FEAR~GREED~WAR~LIES &
    -oOOo-(_)-oOOo- “THEFT of National Treasury”
    Republicans are famous for:”Simply Ignoring REALITY”!
    They also; campaign that Government is BAD,
    then they get elected(?) and PROVE IT!

  • Joy Rider

    Nice and very interesting article here. I guess the vision of having hundreds of thousands of electric cars buzzing along American highways is an understatement. But there’s no reason that the EV1 should be killed. –Joy Rider

  • Jan Settergren

    How about a Hybrid car that has a fan in front positioned so that it rotates faster as the car is driven and generates energy to save gas.