SEMA eNews Vol. 10, No. 21, May 24, 2007

NEW TECHNOLOGY COULD SUSTAIN PLUG-IN HYBRID INFRASTRUCTURE

Automakers aren’t the only companies taking a keen interest in plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs). Electric utilities are realizing development of such technology could bolster their bottom line, as well, according to a recent WardsAuto.com article.

Although PHEVs offer promising fuel efficiency, they face a number of hurdles before being introduced to the marketplace. Arguably, the most significant challenge is the way the nation’s energy grids will handle the additional power needed to recharge large numbers of plug-in vehicles.

GridPoint Inc., a Washington-based energy-management company, says it has the solution and is working with both utility companies and automakers to make PHEVs viable. Established in 2003, GridPoint’s first order of business was the creation of a standalone power unit called GridPoint Central to be used by utility customers to monitor their energy use. Similar in size to a standard refrigerator, customers can track their energy consumption through the GridPoint unit or via a dedicated website.

“You can log on to our site and see your usage for the month,” Brian Golden, GridPoint’s vice president-product strategy, told Ward’s Auto. “You can see the number of kilowatt hours used and their dollar value.” For example, he says, “You could see that you spent $140 running your air conditioner last month and change your operating characteristics to save money.”

A system that allows fine-tuning of household energy use would appear a perfect fit for PHEVs, which require massive amounts of electricity to recharge their batteries. Golden says a PHEV owner could program GridPoint Central to recharge his vehicle during off-peak hours when electricity is cheap. Or, if necessary, the owner could override the program, allowing for charging during peak hours, albeit at a greater cost.

The way it would work, Golden explains, is the GridPoint Central unit would be owned by the electrical utilities and rented to customers for about $20 per month, with an additional $10 monthly fee for the online monitoring service. Customers would be required to sign a contract with the utility company that allows for greater control over the individual’s energy use by optimizing the flow of power for more uniform electricity output. The peaks and valleys of everyday energy consumption would be leveled out, and energy that normally goes to waste during off hours would be used to charge PHEVs. As part of the deal, the utility would pay customers about $5 a month to access power stored in a stationary PHEV’s batteries when needed during peak hours, minimizing the chance of a grid overload, Golden says.

Because PHEVs run on both gasoline and electric power, in the unlikely case a vehicle’s batteries were drained completely by the utility, the owner still could drive the car with minimal inconvenience. Golden says, theoretically, a PHEV owner could operate his vehicle on electric power without ever paying a dime by programming the GridPoint Central system to sell power borrowed from the vehicle’s batteries for more than the customer’s original cost. For example, if a vehicle was to recharge itself at night at a cost of $0.08 per kW/hour, its owner could sell back the power to the electric utility at $0.50 per kW/hour.

“You could get all your fuel paid for the lifetime of the car,” Golden says. “That’s why you need an intelligent platform to manage this.”

With the technology in place to interact with electric utilities, Golden says his company now is working with several automakers to overcome some major roadblocks before PHEVs can be recharged through the GridPoint system. These include how to instruct the vehicle to discharge its energy and the way in which it would do so. “We’re working with automakers on the discharging. It’s not something (PHEVs) were originally designed for,” Golden says. “Also, how do you get power back to the electrical grid? Maybe through the same plug, but we’re not sure yet.” Golden predicts PHEVs will be on the road in about three years, and GridPoint should be able to interact with them seamlessly in about five years.

But while Golden’s company is confident all the bases are covered, some auto-industry insiders are not so sure. Susan Cischke, senior vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Co., says she is not convinced the nation’s electric grid will be able to handle the additional loads created by a proliferation of PHEVs. “Having lived (in southeast Michigan) a couple of summers ago when the (regional) grid went down, I don’t know if it’s ready,” she tells Ward’s Auto. “I do agree there’s a real opportunity to take advantage of off-peak power, but I think that more study would need to be done.”

Another concern of Cischke’s and others is the advancement of hybrid-battery technology.

Today’s hybrid-electric vehicles use nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which are durable but don’t hold enough energy to be viable for use in PHEVs. Many automakers say the solution is lithium-ion batteries, but they cost much more and are not as durable. As such, capable energy-storage devices are needed before PHEVs can be readied for production, Cischke says. The cost to accelerate the development of lithium-ion batteries currently rests largely with the auto industry and a handful of battery producers. A new business model likely will have to be implemented to speed along development, perhaps through government subsidies, Cischke says. Another alternative is to have the power companies own the batteries, she says.

“At one time, the phone company used to own all the phones, so maybe there’s a different model out there,” she says. “The model we know today may be different (in the future), it may be one in between.”

While acknowledging the obstacles, Cischke admits GridPoint’s business model is intriguing. Considering that much of the criticism surrounding the use of E85, a blend of 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol, is the lack of a public refueling infrastructure, GridPoint’s PHEV plan has the necessary electrical grid already in place. “I definitely want to talk to (GridPoint),” Cischke says. “I think we have to expand our view of alliances and partnerships to accommodate a full range of transportation options.”

Source: Pope, Byron. (May 14, 2007) “GridPoint Readies PHEV Battery-Charging System.” WardsAuto.com. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from www.wardsauto.com.

 

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