Three Thoughts on Smart Charging For Plug-In Vehicles

Electric cars are starting to plug into the grid, and even Google (GOOG) is hopped-up on the technology, as it made clear with its $10 million pledge for eco-car startup investments. So it’s interesting that PG&E (PCG) and Tesla said yesterday that they are planning to research “smart charging” –- where the rate that a plug-in electric vehicle charges from the grid can be controlled remotely. Maybe you’re wondering why that’s useful.

Vehicles that can smart charge don’t add power back into the grid, according to the companies, but can be controlled remotely, supporting the grid’s operation or optimally matching the load to the availability of renewable energy resources like wind and solar. The companies also said their goal is to give Tesla customers a way to cut their vehicle-charging costs while “while supporting greater penetration of renewable energy on the grid.”

Well, what do electric car technology experts really think about this? We asked Felix Kramer, founder of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle organization Cal-Cars; Tom Gage, CEO of AC Propulsion, maker electric vehicle technology; and Reed Benet, a Graduate Researcher at the Alternative Fuels & Vehicle Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis:

Felix Kramer, founder Cal-Cars: Utilities have worked with large commercial customers to manage their peak loads for a long time. Now smart charging can bring that to cars. It can save customers money and help utilities best use their facilities. Plus it’s a step toward vehicle-to-grid (V2G). It offers a peek at a very different future when two distinct industry sectors — power generation and transportation — begin to merge. This “electrification of transportation” can improve the efficiency of utility plants, reducing their operating costs. And best of all, when utilities have what they’ve always lacked — distributed storage — they can turn intermittent renewable energy like night-time wind into reliable 24/7 energy sources.

Tom Gage, CEO, AC Propulsion: (Note: The Tesla Roadster uses technology licensed from AC Propulsion. PG&E is also looking at using the smart charging technology with AC Propulsion’s electric vehicles.) There’s nothing new here [smart charging]. But the basic technologies in wireless communications, telling the car what to do, are all undefined. To make this really work there has to be some pretty widespread standardization. Everybody has to get involved.

Reed Benet, graduate researcher, Alternative Fuels & Vehicle Institute of Transportation Studies, UC Davis:
Fundamentally smart charging is a small piece of a huge elephant. Batteries aren’t cheap enough, small enough or light enough. Are batteries ready to worry about the icing on the cake, that is more efficient charging? This is one of a thousand small issues that pales in comparison.

Adena DeMonte contributed reporting.

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