2012-04-16

Coming Soon: Electric Vehicles That Talk To The Power Grid To Prevent Blackouts

Can power companies handle every car owner plugging in at the same time? Probably not, but new software will let the company figure out which cars need charging most so that everyone is powered up by morning.

Smart meters, electrical meters that communicate information to the local utility in near real-time, are rapidly being rolled out across the U.S. But for most people (myself included), the meter just sits there, inert. It’s transmitting information much more efficiently back to the utility than traditional meters, sure, but the full promise of smart meters—helping customers save energy with their new energy data, hooking up all sorts of "smart" appliances to work when the grid can handle them—has yet to be realized for most people. And the oft-mentioned idea of two-way communication between electric vehicles and the grid in order to ensure that power companies don’t get trampled by thousands (or millions) of EVs all charging at the same time? Hasn’t really happened.

Fortunately for the already-overtaxed power grid, IBM, Honda, and utility PG&E are taking the first step toward vehicle-to-grid communication with the Honda Fit EV pilot project. The San Francisco-based pilot will use a small pool of the vehicles to test the ability of EVs to take in and answer charging instructions from the utility (PG&E, in this case) that vary depending on the vehicle’s battery charge and the condition of the grid. If 100,000 EV drivers all plug in their vehicles when they get home from work at 8 p.m., this kind of technology will allow utilities to stagger charging so that it doesn’t lead to a blackout.

In the prototype system, the plugged-in Honda EV will send a charge request via the onboard system. IBM’s Electric Vehicle Enablement Platform collects both data about the vehicle’s battery state and grid data from PG&E, and combines the two to create a charging schedule, which is sent back to the vehicle almost instantaneously.

"This pilot project with IBM and Honda will help us demonstrate that third-party providers have the systems and capabilities to help meet some of the challenges that electric vehicles could place on the power grid as their adoption increases in the coming years," said Saul Zambrano, senior director for consumer products for PG&E, in a statement.

Note that the pilot project uses a one-way vehicle-to-grid communication system. Two-way systems, where utilities can set charge schedules and already-charged vehicles can send power back to the grid, are a little further off. But we have at least a little time to spare before deployment becomes crucial. It will still be many years before there are enough plug-in hybrid vehicles and EVs on the road to threaten the grid.

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