Utility outfield: Delaware professor leads vehicle-to-grid research

    The first generation of mass-market electric cars is rolling out this year, and local utility companies say they are thinking about how to address the new demand for electricity. For about 15 years, a University of Delaware professor has been researching what would happen if those cars not only took power from the grid, but also gave it back. Now, the idea of vehicle-to-grid power, or V2G, is getting a little more traction.

    “It used to be that the car companies would say that’s crazy, you know, that doesn’t make any sense. Then they went through a period of saying, ‘Well that’s kind of interesting, but its 20 years away,'” said Willett Kempton, a professor and lead V2G researcher at the University of Delaware. “Now they’re to the point of saying, ‘Well, maybe generation two (of our electric cars), maybe we’ll start thinking about that.”

    The idea is that unused juice in electric car batteries can be tapped during times of peak power usage. That means cutting down on the use of inefficient and expensive backup generators pressed into service when demand exceeds supply.

    “You might think that the electric system would have to be redone in order to push power from your house out into the grid or to your neighbor’s houses,” Kempton said. “But actually it does that already, no changes that are required.”

    Kempton and his team have been returning power back to the city of Newark’s grid for two years. In a small pilot program, which Kempton said is the first of its kind, the school developed networking software that connects seven cars to the grid operator. The cars have been retrofitted with powerful, quick-charging batteries that can send power back through the grid when called upon.

    The idea is still in development, and there are a slew of logistical and technical obstacles to using thousands of cars as regulating devices.

    “I would call the technology promising, but not inevitable,” said Mark Duvall of the Electric Power Research Institute. “Can you do it with 100 or 1,000 (cars) in the real world where they’re connected to someone’s real home? That’ll be very interesting when we get to that stage.”

    Kempton said the utilities he has spoken to said they would likely be willing to work with as few as 100 cars.

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