This story, written by Camille Ricketts, was originally posted on VentureBeat's GreenBeat, an editorial partner of AllCarsElectric.
Nissan continues to beat the electric car drum. Last week, it started taking reservations for its all-electric Leaf, and beat its own expectations with more than 6,600 immediate orders. Now today, it announced that it is teaming up with General Electric to research the impact electric vehicles are likely to have on U.S. electrical grids — one of the biggest questions in the industry.
The proliferation of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles predicted to take place over the next three years could make energy demand to skyrocket, exceeding utility supplies, and causing rolling brownouts and blackouts. Not only would this disturb ratepayers, but would also cost electric utilities millions of dollars in maintenance fees.
To avoid these problems, GE and Nissan said they will work together for at least three years to develop practical electric vehicle charging infrastructure that will keep grid power loads healthy and balanced.
In addition to surveying how cars will interact with the grid in general, it sounds like the two companies will be brainstorming roadside and household solutions similar to Coulomb Technologies‘ Smart ChargePoint charging stations — compact machines that can be bolted to standard telephone poles to deliver quick, high-voltage charges to advanced car batteries.
The key will be to develop stations that can communicate with one another and with the utilities pumping energy to the grids. If the utility is aware of how much energy is being used to charge cars in real time, it can make intelligent decisions about how much to make available, and when.
Both GE and Nissan have made bold moves to develop their own charging equipment. GE plans to manufacture these types of systems. Nissan, on the other hand, has contracted AeroVironment to build charging equipment suited to charge its Leaf models in people’s garages. The automaker plans to use $100 million of its grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy to deploy 12,750 charging stations in the U.S. when the Leaf launches later this year.
Coulomb isn’t the only venture-backed company working on the problem. Better Place, also based in the Bay Area, says it also has charging station technology in the works. However, its strategy has recently shifted more toward battery switching stations, which would allow drivers to swap out depleted batteries for fully-charged models while they are on the go. This would solve the issue of charging wait times, which reach 30 minutes, even at their fastest. No one would want to use gas stations if it took 30 minutes or more to fill up their tanks either.
In order for GE and Nissan to pitch competitive products, they will need to figure out a while to safely increase the voltages pumped out by charging stations to cut down waiting time. They will also need to come up with a viable way to integrate these charging stations into existing fueling infrastructure. It will be interesting to see whether charging station makers will cut deals with Exxon, Chevron and Shell to offer EV charging options alongside their traditional gas pumps.
Recently, Microsoft joined forces with Ford, implementing its Hohm energy management system to automate when cars charge. For example, EV owners could specify that they only want to charge their cars during off-peak hours when demand is low and electricity is at its cheapest. Other energy management enterprises like Tendril, Control4 and 4Home are taking similar approaches to the problem.
To tackle the home-charging issue together, GE and Nissan say they will look into equipment that could safely deliver a higher voltage than standard wall outlets currently being used, and consult with utilities to see if incentive or different rate plans can be offered to encourage off-peak charging. Utilities could then market charging solutions by saying they take advantage of lower-cost electricity.