Plug In 2011In the words of Mike Rowand, Duke Energy, “The electric vehicle (EV) is not just a question of connecting a car to a power grid. It is about connecting it to the customer; connecting it to the continuous development of the technology surrounding EVs; and, finally, connecting it to our society’s governmental and regulatory policies.”

And so was the framework for the discussion yesterday at Plug In 2011. The good news is that while EVs and the inevitable culture, infrastructure and business changes seem overwhelming, there is already some foundation in place to ready us for this upcoming shift.

There’s An App. for That!
If you think about it, most of us are already connected to our cars. Whether it be simply through your key that allows you to lock, unlock or raise an alarm when you are outside of the car, you are able to communicate with the vehicle with just a touch of a button. If you are a more “advanced” driver, then perhaps you are using the Onstar or Sync systems that are now available on many cars. Either way, having a close connection to our car and how it functions is something drivers have been getting more comfortable with for years.

This comfort will come in handy as we prepare for what Roland Lartigue, of Siemens Energy (where I also work, and which also sponsors The Energy Collective) says is at the basis of EVs and their dual relationship with the driver and the power grid. “[Drivers will have access to applications (via phone or a screen in the car)] to: find a charging station, start a charge, cease a charge, calculate their carbon footprint, and much more. All of these are available today.” explains Lartigue. He believes these connections that drivers have with their vehicles will be important in the goal of optimizing EV use.

Can the Power Grid Determine How Green an EV Can be?
Around the conference, there was lots of talk about how “green” an electric vehicle is if it is plugging into a “dirty” grid. The general agreement by all was it is a lot greener than a gasoline-powered car. But, here and there you heard examples of people and places that were taking EVs to an almost purely green state.

One such example is the country of Ireland, as told by Mark McGranaghan of Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Specifically the Irish Utility, ESB, which he says is an excellent model for integrated smart grid networks.

According to McGranaghan, about 17-18% of the power generated in Ireland is from wind. At night that figure can increase to 50% or more. However, due to some system constraints, the utility does not allow the generation to go over 50%.

Half of that wind generation is on a distribution system, a complicated reality that smart grid plays an important part in. Add that to the fact that McGranaghan says Ireland has 1,500 charging stations around the country, and you have an ideal situation for EV carbon reduction.

Definitions are being Re-Written
These new connections will have ripple effects way beyond what most of us can even conceive of at this time. But, people at the utility companies, like Mike Rowand from Duke Energy, are very aware that EVs and the smart grids that will be there to support them change a long list of realities in the way power is generated, stored, transmitted, distributed and used, including:

  • EVs have the potential to become energy storage facilities
  • EVs are an instant distributed energy system
  • Metering changes completely when you consider that EVs have onboard metering
  • EVs could be capable of two-way communication with the power grid
  • Engaged customers won’t just blindly flip a switch, but they will understand what happens when something is “turned on”.

It seems plugging in an electric vehicle will connect far more than car to grid. It will connect companies to people, industries to un-related industries, machines to the environment and power to knowledge like never before.