Time to Get Smart

I’d imagine that most people dreaming of purchasing an electric car imagine that doing so would be a big benefit to the environment. After all, electric cars don’t use gas and they don’t emit pollution from their tailpipes. However, electric cars still need to be plugged in, and in most places in America that means they’re running on about 37% coal power, 30% natural gas, 19% nuclear, 7% hydro, and only 5% “other renewables”.  In other words, if you think your electric car doesn’t pollute, than you’re just looking up the wrong tailpipe. Now imagine what would happen if every car in America were replaced with an electric vehicle.  It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to realize that we would need to build a whole lot of new power plants in order to keep up with the new demand for energy.

The way that the energy grid works, utilities don’t have the ability to store away power for later which means that they always need to supply more energy than is being used at the current moment. For this reason, utilities need to supply enough power to meet the demands at the peak moments of consumption, which is always in the early evening and is always higher on especially cold or especially hot days. That means that the more power we use around dinner time, the more power plants we need to build, but that using that same energy at another time of day would not require new energy capacity. In other words, if everyone plugs in their car when they come home from work, we’re going to have a big problem.

That’s a scary thought, but if we start planning for the future now, we can turn this potential crisis into an opportunity. The first step is going to be to make sure that the electric cars are smart enough to hold off on charging until a lower demand time (for example, around 2am). That would allow us to use the same power plant that turns on our ovens and TVs in the early evenings to charge up our cars in the middle of the night. This is the same concept of the smart grid, which imagines 2-way communication between appliances and the utilities, potentially allowing cell phones, water heaters, dish washers, and electric cars all over the city to coordinate their energy usage in order to drastically increase efficiency. Utilities could even charge lower rates at lower demand times, giving consumers a choice to allow their gadgets to control their charging schedule in order to reduce energy bills, or to press the override button and pay a slight premium for an immediate charge for those times when they really can’t afford to wait.

That’s what would be possible if we had two-way communication between gadgets and utilities, now imagine what would be possible if we had two-way electricity transfers. Remember that the challenge with the energy grid was that we don’t have the technology for batteries large enough to store the energy that power plants produce at 2am and deliver that energy when it’s needed at 6pm. That’s because we never had the incentive to develop batteries that powerful until we started to build electric cars. Now imagine the potential of every electric car batter being able to store power when it’s cheapest to produce, and being able to give a little power back when it’s most needed. That would mean that we could actually have the potential to start turning some power plants off.

Of course, not everyone would be able to adjust their schedule to allow their cars to give back energy at the most needed times, which just so happen to coincide with rush hour. But think of the benefits for everyone who is able to adjust: skip the rush hour commute and earn a rebate back from your utility. That creates a nice incentive for people for people to carpool, bike, or take transit to work; all of which have other environmental benefits as well. (While we’re on the subject, let’s also consider that auto insurance companies are already starting to offer pay-as-you-drive insurance plans, which would further increase the incentives for people not to drive).

So why isn’t everyone talking about this promethean innovation? Creating the software to make it happen would be easy, but first we would need to update our hardware to make it possible. That doesn’t just mean replacing our cars and appliances (which we would all have to do eventually), it also means replacing our outlets.  For this to work, we need an outlet which also allows for two way communication and energy transfers, something that our standard three-pronged outlets cannot do. In other words, we need to start installing outlets with the simple functionality of the USB ports. The consumer demand for that is already there, all that’s missing is uniform standards so that every electrician, homebuilder, and gadget manufacturer can know exactly how to build their product so that it will continue to be useful 10 years from now. That’s the kind of signal that the government would need to send to the market, and every day that let pass without taking this kind of action means that another obsolete home is built which will stand as a barrier to efficiency for decades to come.

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