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‘Smart grid' could thwart rising energy costs from electric cars

by Alex Baumgardner
April 28, 2010


plug-in hybrid

NationalRenewableEnergyLabratory.gov

As demand increases for plug-in hybrids, so could the demand for energy during peak hours, causing prices to skyrocket. Argonne National Laboratory's smart grid could help lower energy costs.

With the demand for electric vehicles anticipated, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory are looking for ways to combat the potential energy surge a growing demand for plug-in hybrid cars could cause.

“The thing most consumers probably don’t realize is what it costs to generate electricity changes quite a bit throughout the day,” said Les Poch, an engineer at Argonne’s Center for Energy, Environmental and Economic Systems Analysis. “And the highest demand is around 6 o’clock. And so you have all these people coming home at six with their plug-in electric vehicles. What’s going to happen?”

Because the price of energy fluctuates with demand, even sometimes minute-to-minute, the hours between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. would potentially cause a steep increase in electric bills. And that’s just what Argonne is trying to prevent by implementing a "smart grid."

To avert skyrocketing energy costs, Argonne is developing a method that would automate communication between the local power source and your outlet.

“I would plug in at 6 o’clock at night, and tell the device I need this charged by 6 a.m.,” Poch said. “It doesn’t matter when it charges it, just that the utility can choose when to provide [the cheapest] electricity.”

While those working on developing a smart grid said it would be expensive to implement, the benefits would go beyond cost reduction at the consumer level. It could also help increase the use cleaner energy producing methods.

“One of the benefits to smart grid, you can have a higher penetration rate of things like wind and solar power, which have a lot of variable output,” said Tom Veselka, an energy systems engineer at Argonne. “The production changes quite a bit from hour to hour to minute to minute. But some other part of the system would respond to that. With smart grid, it would be easier to manage that.”

President Obama has pushed for an increased presence of electric cars since his 2008 campaign and has called for one million hybrid plug-in cars to hit the road in the next five years. Car companies have responded, producing vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and the Ford Fusion.

Argonne’s smart grid is still its infancy, but some utility companies also are starting to implement similar energy-saving strategies. Commonwealth Edison has started the Residential Real-Time Pricing program that allows consumers more control over their energy usage through the use of meters that log hourly usage data. RRTP participants pay an extra $2.25 a month, but ComEd recently reported that those consumers collectively saved nearly $1.5 million in 2009, with savings on an individual level ranging from 11 percent to 21 percent.

Sharon Feigon, chief executive officer of I-GO Car Sharing, a Chicago-based nonprofit group interested in reducing overall demand for vehicles and proponent of electric cars, said the possible increase in energy need isn’t an issue right now. Still, as the demand for hybrid plug-ins increases, new ways to find cheap electricity will be needed.

“What we’re interested in is using solar power and solar canopy’s to recharge cars,” Feigon said. “So when someone comes to the solar charging station, they can make use of the power that’s been accumulated from a battery as well as from the grid.”

For Argonne, the issue remains finding solutions before a problem develops. And the keystone of all the complicated systems analysis and energy conservation techniques being developed in its labs is simple producer to consumer communication.

“The problem with the grid now is you could call it a dumb grid,” Poch said. “[Consumers] still don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”