Electric cars and a smart electric grid have a bright future, according to panelists at a roundtable discussion on the subject that I attended last Friday in Boston.
“I would say that electricity is a vastly superior fuel for the light vehicle fleet,” said Willett Kempton, a professor and alternative energy specialist at the University of Delaware.
And in a true smart grid, electric cars will not only be able to draw on electricity to run their motors, they will also be able to do the reverse: send electricity stored in their batteries back into the grid when it is needed. In effect, cars would be acting like tiny power stations.
“Most days, most cars are going to have lots of extra battery capacity,” said Mr. Kempton, noting that on average, American automobiles get driven for just one hour each day. Electrifying the entire vehicle fleet would provide more than three times the U.S.’s power generation, he said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, is on board with the idea.
“Vehicle-to-grid is, I believe, the salvation of the automotive industry in the United States,” declared Marc Spitzer, an agency commissioner who was also on the panel.
Sven Thesen, the communication and technology director for Better Place, a start-up that is gaining traction (see this recent New York Times article) in its effort to create a network for electric cars in various countries, likened the concept of electric cars to cellphones.
“Fifteen years ago, how many people had a cellphone?” he asked.
Now, people are used to cellphone subscription plans and plugging the phone into the wall at night, Mr. Thesen reasoned, so a switch to electric cars would also be manageable.
And where does Better Place fit in?
“We will own the battery. We will always own the batteries,” said Mr. Thesen. “You guys own the cars.”
He envisioned “hundreds of thousands” of charging spots, as well as a number of stations where drained batteries could be exchanged for fresh ones.
A key thing, he said, will be to recharge the batteries at an acceptable time for the electricity grid — to “make sure people aren’t charging at the very peak, peak time,” like late afternoon when the electricity grid is already weighted down by demands like air conditioning.
Battery recharging would typically take two to four hours, he said.
So far Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and California’s Bay Area have plans to implement the Better Place model. Mr. Thesen said that a factory in Turkey was being refurbished to be able to produce 100,000 electric vehicles a year.
But a large-scale system of electric cars and smart grids is unlikely to be ready soon.
Asked when there might be one million electric vehicles on the road that could also feed their battery capacity back into the grid in a two-way exchange, the panelists generally said between 2017 and 2020.
By KATE GALBRAITH/NYT