Plug-In Vehicles and the Smart Grid

The growing popularity of plug-in vehicles raises the question of whether our existing power grid can handle increasing electricity demands.

| April 23, 2012

  • High-Voltage-Book-Cover
    Transportation accounts for about a third of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., and there is a powerful case to be made for cleaner cars. In “High Voltage,” science and energy writer Jim Motavalli gives a behind-the-scenes narrative of the robustly competitive market for electric cars.
  • Tesla Model S On Road
     Tesla’s Model S electric sports car combines luxury and sustainability.  

  • High-Voltage-Book-Cover
  • Tesla Model S On Road

Plug-in charging stations and smart grids seem like something still far off in the future, but by 2020, the auto industry will look very different from today’s field of troubled auto giants. In High Voltage (Rodale Books, 2011), Jim Motavalli captures this period of unprecedented change, documenting the evolution from internal combustion engines to electric power. The following is excerpted from the beginning of Chapter 6, “The Smart Grid.” 

As the huge piles of snow from a record 2011 winter finally melted, my local utility came by and installed a smart meter on the side of my house, replacing one whose design had changed little for a half century. It's great that this state of affairs employed thousands of meter readers, but there was no reason for them in the modern era—my meter should be readable from the billing office. And now it is.

A smart meter not only enables the utility to measure my electric usage and note the bump when I plug in my EV, but also empowers me. On my computer, I can now dial up software that shows me exactly how much juice each of my appliances is using, and choose to shut some of them harmlessly down during peak power demand times (heat waves, for instance).

Smart meters are a huge advance and are fortunately going mainstream at the same time that electric cars are hitting the road. The two can work together closely. When it's plugged in, your electric car is just another household load—and a pretty big one, sometimes doubling electricity consumption. If we get really smart about this, we can create home networks that empower consumers to manage and reduce their power needs—and save money in the process. The smart home is finally coming to America, and it's also making huge strides in Japan.

The car I saw parked in the garage at Panasonic's Eco Ideas House in downtown Tokyo was a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius, and it's part of a singularly green home energy management system. The house, presided over by a poised tour guide with a sing-songy delivery, combines a five-kilowatt solar panel on the roof and a one-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell in the backyard to generate electricity, and a stationary five-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery to store it. The net result: zero carbon emissions.

Holistic systems that use sophisticated power management electronics like this are all the rage in Japan, thanks to a combination of a growing green consciousness, corporate commitment, and financial support from the government.

6/6/2012 2:23:37 PM

PECO Offers EV Incentives On June 4, 2012, Philadelphia’s PECO Energy Co. announced some new incentives for business and residential customers who invest in new electric vehicle technology. The utility will offer these customers $50 per car for just letting PECO know that they have an electric car. The information will help PECO make sure that its system is ready to meet any increased power demand. Additionally, government, institutional and non-profit customers will be eligible for a $1000 payment for every Level 2 charger that they install. The company will also pay counties up to $3000 to install a Level 2 public charging station in each of the counties PECO serves. Read the entire article at

Sandy Miller
5/15/2012 1:56:27 PM

It's a great thing that we are trying to decrease our carbon footprint by building electric cars, but a good portion of electrical generation plants use "fossil fuels" to generate that electricity. Where is the decrease in carbon emissions? This is just shifting the output source. Why couldn't the car companies experiment with adding a generator to the cars so as they are running they are generating their own, non-polluting, electricity to recharge the batteries?

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