If the demand for PHEVs skyrockets, a flood of new electric cars could strain America’s power networks to the limit.
That is why the U.S. Department of Energy is analyzing how the power grid can be redesigned to better meet America’s energy needs. A multidisciplinary mix of scientists from Argonne National Laboratory is working to help develop a “smart grid” that will not only adapt in real-time to handle larger electricity loads, but also operate more cheaply and efficiently than the existing grid.
In the home, electric vehicles and all major appliances would be connected to a central hub that monitors how much electricity they use. The hub in turn would “talk” to local power suppliers. All of these appliances and the grid would talk to each other and could also share power.
The communication between vehicles, appliances and the grid allows suppliers to track electricity use in real-time. With that information, more utilities could vary the price of power by time of day and create incentives for consumers to use electricity at certain times. If power suppliers are overwhelmed during peak demand, consumers will receive a high price signal that will encourage them to reduce their consumption until the situation eases.
The smart grid offers more choice to consumers by letting them micro-manage their energy bills. A consumer concerned about price could set a dishwasher to run when power is cheapest, usually at night, when demand is lowest. Environmentally conscious consumers could also choose to pay a clean energy premium for solar and wind power and thereby promote the use of these renewable energy sources.
Today’s electricity demand follows well defined cycles. It increases during the daytime when commuters head to work, as homes and offices turn up the air conditioning and factories power up the machinery, and falls sharply during nighttime.
Utilities must prepare for that afternoon peak. “The way we build power plants now is to make sure we have enough to meet the highest demand possible—the maximum amount of power on the afternoon of the hottest day of the year,” said Vladimir Koritarov, deputy director of CEEESA. “Then they add some more for backup in an emergency. The rest of the year we won’t need nearly so much power, but we have to be prepared for that one day.”
For this reason, utilities must maintain a large reserve capacity that is unused for the majority of the year. Koritarov thinks that with the right approach, the smart grid could work out to everyone’s advantage.
By using incentives to smooth out demand for electricity between day and night, a utility can produce power more economically. Also, smart charging of electric and hybrid vehicles during the off-peak periods can significantly help with that goal by filling up “demand valleys.”
A significant stumbling block for power distribution is the lack of technology to store power for extended periods. Stockpiled power from variable resources, such as solar and wind, could be fed back into the grid at peak times to reduce the strain on the grid and conventional power plants. A team of Argonne materials scientists, chemists and engineers – already renowned for their successes in the field of advanced battery development for vehicles – is working to develop large-scale energy storage technologies that will capture energy whenever it’s available and store it for use at a later time.[source: Argonne]