Cars earn their keep

By Kurt Kleiner Washington DC OWNERS of tomorrow’s electric cars won’t just buy electricity from their power company—they will also sell it back. That’s the vision of Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware in Newark, who believes that electric cars could replace dozens of power-generating plants. “It’s an odd way to think about it,” Kempton admits. But his calculations, outlined in the latest issue of Transportation Research (vol 2, p 157), suggest that the idea makes sense. Kempton says that the 146 million passenger vehicles in the US today could in theory provide the grid with up to 12 terawatts of power—16 times its existing capacity. In practice, only a tiny fraction of this power would be available. But this could still help utilities provide the extra generating capacity needed to cover spikes in usage, for example at the start of the business day. Electric cars could charge during the night, when electricity is plentiful, and then be plugged into the grid while parked during periods of peak demand during the day. Fuel-cell cars, which will generate their own electricity, could sell power they had created, rather than simply storing electricity. Kempton says that cars could be programmed to retain enough charge to power the vehicles for planned journeys. The main cost for car owners would be a loss of battery life, since a battery only has a limited number of charges. But Kempton suggests that utilities could share this expense. A prototype system which lets cars feed power back to the grid has been developed in Britain by Wavedriver, an electric car research company in Littlington,
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