When Henry Ford’s neighbors watched the young inventor roll his first gas-powered contraption out of a backyard shed, they had no way of knowing how the rickety four-wheeled carriage would revolutionize human transportation.
More than 100 years later, the billionaire founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, backed out of a parking space in a Toyota Prius converted to run almost exclusively on energy from solar panels. This demonstration of the capabilities of plug-in hybrids, and the two-way flow of electricity between car and electric grid, could have a profound impact on transportation in the 21st century.
“Symbolically, this event is very important” said Stephen Schneider, one of the authors of the recent United Nations report on climate change. Dr. Schneider, a professor of environmental studies at nearby Stanford University, was at Google’s headquarters to observe. “We have to get people to stop thinking big is cool, and start thinking efficiency is cool,” he said.
The Google founders’ two-minute journey was part of the company’s celebration, on June 18, announcing the switching on of the largest solar installation to date on any corporate campus in the United States. The installation will help the company reduce its environmental footprint and power its new fleet of plug-in cars with clean solar electricity. The dashboard display of the converted Prius driven by Mr. Brin and Mr. Page showed a fuel economy reading of 99.9 miles-per-gallon, the highest number that the Toyota hybrid is capable of showing.
One highlight of the event occurred when Mr. Brin tapped a key on a laptop computer to launch the so-called “vehicle-to-grid” capabilities of the “ReChargeIt” project. With the keystroke, a nearby energy meter, paused and then spun backwards, showing the flow of energy out of the plug-in car’s batteries and back into the electric grid. The crowd cheered when the meter, projected on a large flat-screen monitor, reversed directions.
Google teamed with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to pull off this demonstration of the two-way flow of electricity between car and electric grid. "Clean energy technology can dramatically shift how we make and use energy for our cars and homes by charging cars through an electric grid powered by solar or other renewable energy sources, and selling power back to the electric grid when it’s needed most" said Dr. Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google which is spearheading the ReChargeIt project.
“The new energy economy is being created right before our very eyes,” said Brad Whitcomb, vice president of customer products & services, Pacific Gas & Electric. “We’re also exploring how this new energy economy can transform our transportation infrastructure.”
For several years, academic researchers and government labs have pointed to vehicle-to-grid (V2G) exchange as a way to provide greater stability to America’s aging electric grid. In a V2G world, cars will become mobile energy storage devices—and garages, parking lots, and roads will become a distributed transportation energy web, much the same as the Internet has become a distributed system for information.
Google.org also partnered with Enterprise Rent-A-Car to create a free car-sharing program for Google employees. With Enterprise’s backing, the program will eventually expand to include 100 plug-in hybrids. Greg Stubblefield, president of California and Hawaii Enterprise Rent-A-Car, said “If Google can do for automobile engines what they did for search engines, then we’re off to a great start.” The addition of 100 plug-in hybrids to Google’s fleet will provide invaluable data related to the performance and long-term viability of plug-in hybrid technology.
David Vieau, president and CEO of A123 Systems, the company supplying the lithium batteries in Google’s new plug-in Priuses and Ford Escape Hybrids, admitted that there was still a lot of work to do on the battery systems before plug-in hybrids are ready for mass production. Vieau said that the battery industry has recently made great progress. “But if you think I’m saying game over, I’m not.” Many prominent auto battery experts view the safety, cost, and longevity issues associated with lithium batteries as the Achilles’ heel of plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
When Mr. Page was asked if his family roots in Detroit had an effect on his support of advanced car technology, he declined to answer. One attendee associated with the project was more forthcoming. “This project tells General Motors and Ford and the American political establishment that it’s time for a change, and we’re not going to wait any longer,” said the gentleman, who asked not to be identified. “If Detroit doesn’t lead, California will.”
Google.org also announced that it will distribute $10 million in grants to organizations accelerating the development of battery technology, plug-in hybrids, and vehicles capable of returning stored energy to the grid.