The enormous promise of vehicle-to-grid technology

By Felix Salmon
November 1, 2011
Dan Ferber's 3,500-word article on Vehicle-to-Grid is far too long for you to read, especially when Greece is busy imploding, but it's a very important idea.

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Dan Ferber’s 3,500-word article on Vehicle-to-Grid is far too long for you to read, especially when Greece is busy imploding, but it’s a very important idea. So let me give you the shorter version, starting with four facts about the energy industry.

  • The 146 million cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks in America, between them, produce seven times the power of all US power plants combined.
  • The supply of energy is volatile, and will get more so as we move to renewables like wind and solar. Those sources only produce energy some of the time.
  • The demand for energy is also volatile, going up during the day and when it’s hot outside.
  • Storing energy, by doing things like pumping water uphills into reservoirs, is expensive and cumbersome. And those energy sources can’t provide the small bumps in power needed to ensure that AC electricity is running at 60 hertz at all times.

All of which opens up an amazing opportunity for owners of electric vehicles — be they electric, hybrid, or fuel cell. Those vehicle owners can basically become baby energy traders, fueling up their cars at night, when electricity is cheap, or at the pump. And then plugging their cars into the grid, where they can sell energy back to the grid for much more than they paid for it.

Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware has already set up his electric Scion to do just that; it’s been earning him $300 a month since 2009.

This is a fantastic idea, and it’s a no-brainer, really, that all electric cars should have the ability to power the grid, rather than just drawing power from it. The number and size of power plants is a function of peak electricity demand; if electric-car owners collectively can help meet peak demand, then that means we need fewer power plants. And, the revenue from selling that electricity would help offset the extra cost of buying an electric car in the first place.

The batteries in electric cars are expensive and valuable pieces of technology which go unused for most of the time. Let’s put those things to use, and make money doing so! The only real question is why this isn’t happening already.

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