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Can electric cars reduce peaking?

One of the less-understood parts of electrical utilities is the problem of “peaking,” which comes in different forms. Under times of high demand, such as a run of very hot days, power plants may need to call upon reserve generators to satisfy demand. This is an expensive practice, partly because “peaking plants” held in reserve are normally older, less efficient, and used only a few times a year, but must be manned and maintained at all times. Buying power from other utilities can be even more expensive.

This is one reason why some utilities have invested in solar power (which works best in precisely the conditions where peaking is usually needed) and supported electric cars (which they figured would be charged at night, when power demand is usually low).

One way to avoid peaking is to have reserves. Detroit’s NextEnergy nonprofit energy technology group and Chrysler have partnered to see if electric cars could act as a reserve for utilities. One vehicle cannot make a difference, but thousands might. They are working on a pilot project using four electric minivans, whose charging module can simulate any electric grid in the world.

If enough EVs were linked together and their combined surplus power was sold to utilities, they could offset demand surges. Tapping this reservoir would cut costs for utility companies, while putting money into the pockets of EV owners.

A mini-grid composed of EVs would enable “peak-shaving,” where EV owners could draw from their own power reserves during those hours when demand (and the price) for electricity is highest.

EVs could also help with solar power fluctuations, a process known as “generation-firming.”

The two-year Chrysler-NextEnergy partnership launched in 2011 and has been gathering data from four Chrysler Town & Country minivans equipped with all-electric powertrains. Each is powered by a 24kwH battery modified to accommodate bidirectional charging. Engineers are investigating how EVs with reverse power-flow might affect grids known as Independent System Operators (ISO).

An ISO buys, sells, and transmits electricity. Project engineers are collecting real-time pricing data from ISOs and weighing them against projected battery performance to help define revenue expectations.

Preliminary results show particular promise for ISOs that utilize solar and wind energy. Final results will be compiled later this year

The project was funded with $1 million from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and $400,000 from NextEnergy. Chrysler Group is supplying the minivans and in-kind engineering support. The company’s first production electric minivans were the 1993 TEVans, with between 56 and 80 made; some appear to still be on the road today. A second run of electric minivans were made in 1997, but these were leased rather than sold.

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