Hot Wheels: Boulder Tests the Plug-In Hybrid Future, With One Car

By Jeffrey Ball
Wall Street Journal
November 11, 2008

The Journal’s Stephanie Simon reports:

Want a sneak peek at what may be the car of the future? And a reality
check about how far into the future it may still be? Have a look at an
experiment in Boulder, Colo.

So far, it’s pretty small potatoes, involving exactly one car and one
plug. But boosters say it has the potential to revolutionize – and
revitalize — our aging power grid.

Here’s what’s happened so far: Xcel Energy, Inc. spent $30,000 to convert
a Ford Escape hybrid into a plug-in electric car. The utility gave the SUV
to the chancellor at the University of Colorado, whose residence is a test
site for Xcel’s “SmartGridCity” project, a two-year experiment in
modernizing the power grid.

The chancellor’s vehicle draws power in part from the solar panels on his
roof. But that’s not the exciting part. The car also sends stored power
from its battery back to the grid, thanks to a small wind-turbine inverter
the Xcel engineers grafted onto the SUV.

This is the first commercial test of what’s known as vehicle-to-grid, or
V2G, technology. Within a few months, Xcel will add three Toyota Priuses
from Boulder County’s government fleet to the V2G experiment.
According to Xcel, the average hybrid driver pulls into his garage at
night with his battery still two-thirds full. That means it contains about
8 kilowatt hours of stored energy, enough to power eight homes for an
hour. Xcel engineers figure they can draw down this power during peak
usage – say at 5 p.m. on a sticky summer day. Then they can reverse course
and have the grid send power back into the car during the low-demand hours
in the middle of the night, so the battery is fully juiced for the
driver’s morning commute.

“One battery really doesn’t help you that much. But 5,000 of them do. Or
50,000,” said Roy Palmer, program executive for SmartGridCity.
It’ll take years before this technology becomes commercially viable. (Mr.
Palmer jokes that $8-a-gallon gasoline would help speed it along, because
drivers would rush to demand plug-in hybrids.) But Xcel executives say if
it works, it could help avert blackouts. Cars could also become the
ultimate green machines, storing energy from wind and solar power and
feeding it back to the grid at peak demand.

So far, Xcel has funded this project on its own. It’s looking now for help
from the federal government, with the goal of adding 500 more cars to the
V2G test over the next several years. But the utility may have to get in
line. This isn’t the only car-of-the-future looking for a handout.


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