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Feds Jump Into the Electric Vehicle Smart Charging Game

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If all the electric vehicles that car companies are now promising make it to market — and prove popular — the electricity grid will strain under the weight. So before power plants are built and transmission lines raised to meet the need, the best solution to handling the load is smart charging, or using technology to adjust the rate and time of when the car charges to match when it’s best for both the power grid and the car owner. There are already a few companies working on this, like GridPoint (when it acquired V2Green), but the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has been tinkering in its labs with the tech, too, and this morning its researchers say they have created a Smart Charger Controller that companies can license.


So yes, this will be a competitive offering to startups building these tools. Since DOE labs don’t often commercialize technology themselves, companies, like communication network developers, power companies or even car companies, could license the technology to get into the smart charging business. PNNL’s controller uses wireless Zigbee-based technology to connect the device to a smart meter on the home or to other connection points on the power grid, which then communicates to the utility’s back office.

PNNL engineer Michael Kintner-Meyer tells us that the smart charging controller can be installed in three places: a smart power cord, in a charging station or in the vehicle itself. Kintner-Meyer says that the first two locations are where the technology will likely initially be embedded, but that eventually in a more mature market the technology will be embedded in the vehicle (that will require car manufacturer deals, which take time). Last we talked to V2Green (before they were sold) they had been working on smart charging technology that could be embedded in a vehicle or operated from outside. More recently, V2Green/GridPoint struck pilot deals with Texas utility Austin Energy and Southeast utilities Duke Energy Carolinas and Progress Energy.

So how is PNNL’s tech different than some of the other technologies out there on the market? While Kintner-Meyer declined to comment on other companies’ technology, he said PNNL’s technology is based upon a distributed controller concept, and is not built around a centralized controlling point, which many companies are focusing on. Kintner-Meyers also says it’s a low-cost device — if utilities or power management companies are going to roll these out in addition to devices like smart meters, they’re going to have to be.