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Electric Vehicles and the Future of Utilities

I READ BILL GATES' OBSERVATION about batteries in a book review of Daniel Yergin's new opus, The Quest.

Gates has pointed out that all the batteries in the world can store no more than 10 minutes of the world's energy needs. Increase that capacity exponentially and renewables will become pervasive - and a source of baseload generation. In addition, improved energy storage capabilities would transform transportation and sharply reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

A breakthrough in battery technology would also advance the smart grid revolution.

The startup company Better Place is ready to start widely deploying electric vehicles across Israel. The first electric vehicles, made by Renault in Turkey, are expected to be delivered starting the end of this year. Customers in Israel buy 200,000 new vehicles a year. Already, 100,000 have signaled their interest in the EVs.

Better Place and PJM recently studied the impact 1 million EVs would have in the Washington-Baltimore area. Plugging them in on a random basis would require $7750 million worth of wholesale power a year. However, "smart charging" the cars through a centrally controlled network would halve the increase in whole- sale energy costs, according to the study. Call it a smart grid app.

Michael Granoff, a better Place senior executive, said the network operating center will monitor the status of every auto battery in its system and power supply and prices on the grid. The goal will be to maximize he efficiency of powering up the electric vehicles' batteries across the nation at the least cost and strain to the electric grid.

In a report, Israeli Electric, the national utility, said, "In this scenario, an optimal battery-charging plan exists for each car that takes into account the state of the battery, the expected journey length until the next charging spot, and the state of the local and national electrical system."

What about looking at the EV batteries as a distributed energy storage network?

Granoff said that Better Place is working to get its system deployed in Denmark, which relies heavily on wind generation. The first major efforts to orchestrate renewable energy storage in auto batteries are likely to be in Denmark, Granoff said.

Entrepreneurs are already making the connection among electric vehicles, batteries and renewable energy.

Granoff said pulling it all together will be "the area of greatest innovation and disruption in the next five years." Electrifying transportation, he said, is primed for growth. "Job creation will be where the cars show up."

The U.S. Department of Energy is already supporting important research to spur development of high-density, low-cost batteries for electric vehicles to cut oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions while spurring economic growth.

At the same time, there is a good deal of justifiable skepticism about how rapidly American consumers will embrace electric vehicles.

Utilities are now mired in a prolonged spell of flat energy sales. Some are already beginning to explore the role that electric vehicles may play to speed the modernization of their infrastructure and deployment of the smart grid. The goal will be to develop a new generation of energy services, sales and profits.


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