Driving to the Smart Grid

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  We won’t get out of the energy mess we’re in with the same fuel sources and energy technologies that got us here.  The US government typically invests $3 billion into energy research per year, although ARRA (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) put more into energy R&D in 2 years than is normally seen.  Three billion seems like a lot until you compare it to the $30 billion per year spent on healthcare research and the $80 billion poured into defense research.    

America’s ability to compete as a world leader in energy technologies based on this investment number looks bleak indeed.  However, here’s a compelling number to consider:  $7 a charge.  This is the cost of two weekly EV charges at California rates – often identified as among the highest electricity rates in the country.  Two charges a week will easily handle the 30 miles per day round trip driving habits of most Americans.   Compare that to the costs of filling up a gas tank once or twice a week to support those same trips. 

The EV has the potential to be the most transformative technology for the US electrical grid and the American consumer.  Its impacts will ripple through the entire national economy and accelerate Smart Grid-related deployments.  Here are three examples:

  • EVs will spur more distributed generation, microgrids, and energy storage as utilities look to avoid investment in additional remote generation or transmission assets. Generation facilities sited at homes or at work campuses leverage clean, domestic, renewable forms of energy and energy storage that can be used to charge EVs. 
  • EV charge/discharge functionality will require new transformers and other upgrades in the distribution network.  Today’s installed transformers are not designed to manage bi-directional electricity needed for vehicle to grid (V2G) charging and Feed-in-Tariff (FiTs) situations, and thus need to be replaced.  Even if V2G charging is not in place, aging transformers will get more hours of heavy-duty use since many EVs will charge at night, reducing their former “down time” and accelerating their replacement timeframes.  
  • EV fleets, aggregated with predictable patterns of charging or discharging, can become mobile distributed generation and energy storage assets and improve the reliability of the electrical grid.

Einstein talked about changing ways of thinking, and my blog on October 4 offers one example of how to think about EVs.  But we also need to change technologies to compete in the global clean energy economy and enjoy the most effective Smart Grid.  American consumers can do the math on the ever-increasing costs of oil and the insanity of handing over money to unfriendly oil-producing countries.  Even the fossil fuel lobbyists who outspend cleantech lobbyists 59:1 will have a hard time making two $7 electrical fill-ups look more expensive than one $50 trip to the gas station.