Gridpoint's Steve Hauser

The overwhelming theme of the discussion panels at the Austin Alt Car expo last weekend was plug-in vehicles. From questions of infrastructure to the vehicles themselves to the grid load, the weekend served as a crash course in the state of the PHEV industry. Throughout this weekend UPDATE: Monday, actually, then, I'll be posting write-ups from the panels and audio recordings of what was said. If you've ever wanted to have PHEV lessons yourself, now's your chance.

We'll start with the technical panel on infrastructure. This event featured Steve Hauser, from Gridpoint, David Kaplan, who's worked with Microsoft and other tech companies as well as Gridpoint and V2Green (V2Green is partnering with Austin Energy on the smart grid test), and Richard Lowernthal of Coulomb Technologies. Follow us past the jump for the details.

Gridpoint is one of the companies working to make the Smart Grid a reality and is part of the GridWise Alliance. Hauser said Gridwise's strategy is to let customers know what the value of electricity is at any given time. To do that, utilities need to be able to monitor what the grid is doing - from the plant down to the car - and be able to control the grid accordingly. Wind power, for example has a lot of promise, but the on-and-off nature of the source means it doesn't give utilities a lot of power to control the grid. PHEVs with lots of batteries available to store the energy truly extends wind energy's potential in the smart grid. Still, expanding the platform is "not an easy thing to do."

The vehicles have to be charged anyway, let's charge them in a way that's optimized for the grid.
David Kaplan explained that V2Green and Gridpoint had developed very compatible systems - Gridpoint with a broad horizontal services platform that dealt with PHEVs and V2Green with a platform focused on the vehicles - and the two companies are currently in the process of integrating V2G's wireless vehicle interface with GridPoint's overall Smart Grid system. The reason is pretty self-explanatory: "The vehicles have to be charged anyway, let's charge them in a way that's optimized for the grid," he said.

It's also imperative to get utilities to talk to each other. Once plug-in vehicles are widely available, for the first time, there will be a large amount of "disconnected load" in the energy grid, and these load carriers (i.e., your PHEV) will move between utility coverage areas. It doesn't make sense to have a car that can't communicate with the grid if you drive to the neighboring county or town. To build this compatible network, we need a robust web/computer-based system, he said. With all of the political and consumer pressure for cleaner energy, there is a big benefit to a utility what moves into the Smart Grid: reduced grid stress and faster penetration of renewable energy, he said. Drivers and automakers also win. Vehicle owners gain a low-cost energy source for their vehicle, which is now also a greener vehicle. This is also the main benefit to the vehicle manufacturer: a greener product line.

Coulomb Technologies builds smart charging stations and so Richard Lowenthal knows something about the practical issues regarding these stations. Currently, he said, the U.S. has about five times as many vehicles as garages (247 million cars, 53 million garages), so figuring out how to plug cars in outside, on the street is a big challenge. He talked about J1772 plugs, how the cord is locked in in such a way to prevent anyone without the right wireless fob from removing it, and the potential of DC charging (give a listen to the audio clip for details) and one interesting tidbit he mentioned that I hadn't thought about before was that the stations need to be designed so that no energy flows through the wire until the station senses that the connections have been made in order to be totally safe if you plug in your car when it's raining.

Lowenthal picked up on something that Hauser said, that utilities and consumers will be in much better control of the flow of electricity with a Smart Grid and with PHEVs. He gave three examples of potential energy "Demand Response" plans you could buy when everything is hooked up and working:

  • The Off peak plan - which would mean no charging for your car from noon until 6 p.m.
  • The demand response plan, which would disable your car charging when the grid nears capacity. A lot of peopel choosing this plan would help utilities avoid increasing the load capability (i.e., building new plants)
  • The 24/7 "glutton" plan, which disables charging only when there is a grid crisis

I assume these would be in increasing cost. In each case, the "grid response" might last only a few minutes and would be in the hands of the grid operators; this would give utilities tremendous power over their network that they currently don't have.

A second and very similar session was titled Utility Issues & Opportunities followed the Infrastructure one, and there will be a post on that coming soon. if you think this hasn't been an obscene amount of PHEV info, fair enough. But stay tuned for the complete series, including a debate on whether customers will buy in to PHEVs and on the future prospects for plug-ins.

Listen in (48 min):

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