PG&E Eyes Power Grid Plan to Boost Electric Cars

February 25, 2007 by Jeff Shepard

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced that it is considering a plan to charge fleets of battery-powered cars overnight with wind energy and to allow consumers to sell back some of the stored electricity during the day. In addition to reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from standard cars, the plan could help stoke production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and give power managers more energy capacity on the grid for hot summer afternoons, according to speakers at Cleantech, a "clean technology" investment conference in San Francisco this week.

The utility, a subsidiary of PG&E Corp., "could recharge car batteries through electric outlets during the off-peak overnight hours and recharge the grid from the batteries during critical peak demand periods," stated Hal LaFlash, Director of Energy Policy and Planning at PG&E.

PG&E’s LaFlash said new "smart grid" technologies such as high-tech meters that measure electricity use via remote control and give customers timing and pricing options could help drivers charge their batteries at home or in parking lots and also get a bill credit for putting excess electricity back on the grid.

Utilities and grid managers would limit the amount of energy uploaded from batteries, he said. Metering and billing systems would be equipped to match a car to an account.

In addition to cars, connections could be made from homes and office buildings to a smart grid, storing energy at off-peak and delivering more capacity to the grid at peak periods, LaFlash said.

Other companies at the confernece included Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, which is also studying smart-grid technologies and recharging hybrid electric vehicles and feeding excess power back to the grid. A six-month study in Colorado found that electric cars may reduce the overall cost of owning a car, and with new grid technology, cut harmful vehicle emissions by up to 50%.

Future studies will include plug-in electric vehicle field tests, and examine management of battery charging, along with the availability of renewable energy, Xcel said. A power grid-to-car-batteries hookup, however, is probably at least five to six years away, Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars, said at the conference. CalCars is a nonprofit group which has built about 20 plug-ins since 2004 by outfitting the Toyota Prius with new lithium-ion batteries.

Improving battery technologies to boost energy density at lower weight and cost is a hurdle, but progress on lithium ion battery packs could help develop a bigger market for plug-in cars, Kramer said. Drivers also may have to downsize their vehicle choices. Some electric cars are likely to be small and aimed at urban dwellers who do most of their motoring in or near cities, speakers at the conference said.

Jan-Olaf Willums, Chairman of Norway’s TH!NK Electric Car Co., hopes to find a market in Europe and the United States for his two-seater "city" car. Previously tied to Ford Motor Co., the company raised $25 million in February and aims to double the funding amount by May, Willums said. TH!NK expects to begin production in Norway in September, with marketing focused first in Europe and then the United States.