Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Distributed Grid

Electric vehicles can cut greenhouse gas emissions in two ways. They are clean and efficient. By acting as storage capacity, they can also make the electric grid more efficient.

Electric cars are also cheap to drive and to maintain, and they don't make much noise. They still are relatively expensive to buy, but automated production and economies of scale can overcome this hurdle and make electric vehicles cheaper than gasoline cars.

If the electricity came from coal-fired power plants, driving an electric car still causes less greenhouse emissions than driving a gasoline car. Electric cars have zero emissions and are also more efficient. Thermal efficiency of power plants is higher than the thermal efficiency of most gasoline cars. Much of the fuel burned in gasoline cars turns into heat. Electric cars use regenerative breaking and do not use their motors when waiting before traffic lights. Electric cars use energy more efficiently, especially in city traffic that causes most of the emissions.

Impact on the grid - Running our entire fleet of vehicles on electricity instead of oil would not put much stress on the electric grid. One study concludes that if we transformed our entire fleet of vehicles into electric vehicles, they would jointly consume only 20% of grid capacity.

We wouldn't even need much expansion of the grid in terms of extra capacity or transmission lines. The majority of vehicles could run on the idle capacity that is available in the existing grid. One study concludes that there is sufficient idle capacity in the grid to power 73% of light vehicles, i.e. cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans, without adding generation or transmission.

Moreover, such a move would benefit the grid. Car batteries can contain many times more power than what cars need for their average daily travel. Cheap off-peak rates would make it financially attractive to charge batteries at off-peak times, over and above what the individual user consumed during the day. The surplus can then be fed back into the grid to help out with high demand at peak times. Net-metering at good rates could make this attractive, while the grid becomes more efficient, more reliable and less prone to outages and glitches.

New batteries for electric cars are light, safe and do not harm the environment. Batteries are on the market now that allow electric cars to drive for hours without recharging. While these batteries are still expensive - they can cost over $10,000 - and are hard to get, mass production can overcome these hurdles.

Most cars only drive short distances. Recharging them at home and/or at work would suffice in most cases. In case they needed extra power to travel longer distances, their batteries could also be recharged at other locations with the required outlets, e.g. gas stations, parking buildings or parking meters. New batteries are now on the market that can be recharged in minutes, they can last for over a decade and can be recharged thousands of times without degeneration. This would make recharging convenient and safe, compared to filling a car with gas.

We don't all need to buy new cars. Many existing vehicles can be converted into electric vehicles. With some financial assistance, the conversion cost can pay itself back over time through savings on the cost of driving and maintenance. For those who cannot afford to buy a new electric car, there are also initiatives such as Project Better Place that plans to offer electric cars at a cheap price, while making profits on services such as car maintenance, battery upgrades and recharging the batteries. In an effort to offset the company's greenhouse gas footprint, employers may also contribute through leasing arrangements and by making recharging facilities available at work.

Renewable energy looks set to become the dominant supplier of energy. Wind turbines are being installed around the world. This will increase the amount of surplus energy in the grid at night. Storing this surplus energy in the batteries of electric cars will increase overall efficiencies.

Owners of electric cars will consume more electricity (but no gasoline) and are more likely to get solar panels, for the savings as well as to help the environment. Similarly, as more of their staff start driving electric cars, businesses will be more inclined to get solar panels on the roofs of their buildings and car parking facilities.

Solar facilities typically include a battery. Car batteries could be used instead. Most cars are parked at home when people switch on their lights, air-conditioners and TV-sets. Similarly, the power needs at work coincide with cars of staff being parked there. Using the batteries of electric cars to store electricity can reduce the need for batteries in solar facilities and will thus reduce the overall cost of solar facilities.

Cost of solar power has come down over the years. As an example, Nanasolar now offers thin film material at under $1 per watt. This promises clean and safe energy that is price-competitive with power plants. It also becomes increasingly attractive for households and businesses to install solar facilities. Recognising the market opportunities and the financial incentives made available at different levels of government, there now are numerous companies offering to help people adopt green energy at home without having to make large investments, sometimes even without any upfront payments.

A FeeBate Policy can help facilitate the switch to zero emission vehicles and to clean and safe ways to produce energy. A FeeBate policy can include fees on gasoline cars, with the proceeds used for rebates on zero emission vehicles. A FeeBate policy can also include fees on fossil fuel, with the proceeds used for rebates on clean and safe alternatives, such as wind and solar facilities.

In conclusion, all this will lead to a more distributed grid, with numerous suppliers and with numerous places where electricity is stored. The grid now draws electricity from a relatively small number of large power plants, to supply electricity in an area. Renewable energy supplies only a fraction of power, most of it through hydro facilities. The existing grid looks much like a broadcasting network, with a relatively small number of broadcasting stations sending content one-way to the public. In future, the grid looks set to become more distributed, with two-way connections to most users, much like a multitude of users can send and receive information over the Internet.