IBM, Honda, and Pacific Gas & Electric evaluate smart grid

by Ernie Hernandez on April 16, 2012

three overlapping colored circles

Pilot program looks to evaluate potential EV interaction with smart grid

IBM has announced a partnership with American Honda and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to evaluate a pilot program to look at communication between electric vehicles (EVs) and the power grid. The program is designed to demonstrate the ability for the grid and the EV to communicate with each other to ensure that the grid is not overtaxed by EV usage.

One of the biggest concerns of EV naysayers has been that once there are a large number of vehicles on the power grid that the power system will be overtaxed and blackouts and brownouts will become the norm. There are a lot of reasons that isn’t going to happen, but let’s just start with one of the most basic.

The power grid is designed to handle the largest utilization required at any given time. Due to the nature of this design, if it is not being used to this capacity, it is like having a Ferrari and only driving it to the grocery store in first and second gear. There is a lot of unused capability there. Many, if not most, EV owners drive their car during the day and charge it at night while they sleep. This is when much of this grid capacity is normally unused, so it is highly unlikely that electric cars will overtax the system – at least not in the immediate future. But what happens when so many electric cars are on the road that they are all plugging in at night? Then perhaps the system capacity will be approached, which is where this study comes in.

Using the capabilities designed into the smart grid, vehicle charging patterns can be evaluated and individualized charging patterns developed to optimize grid utilization and vehicle charging. With two-way communication between the vehicle and the grid, rather than relying on a simple charge timer that would charge the vehicle at a certain time each day, an optimized plan can be developed that will ensure that the vehicle is charged based on its usage, with an eye toward optimizing battery life using the onboard battery management system (BMS).

“This pilot project with IBM and Honda will help us demonstrate that third-party providers have the systems and capabilities to help meet some of the challenges that electric vehicles could place on the power grid as their adoption increases in the coming years,” said Saul Zambrano, senior director for consumer products for PG&E. “With updated charging patterns for EVs, we have the ability if needed, to shift demand to non-peak times to ensure the reliability of the grid so that we can continue to deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers.”

Collaborations such as this will go far in providing fact based research to this grid concern, hopefully putting an end to much of the thoughtless speculation that is currently finding its way into the mainstream media. A quick side note regarding a couple of items that we discovered as we were checking out the PG&E website – only 1 percent of PG&E’s power mix delivered to retail customers comes from coal. As California is a leader in the move to electrically powered automobiles, this is important information to know. In addition, PG&E has already taken a position as a leader in moving toward a cleaner society. PG&E operates a fleet of electric service vehicles and the first all electric bucket truck. We see all of these steps by IBM, Honda and PG&E as moves to help educate all of us about an electric vehicle future.

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