NEWARK, Del. – The thick blue cables and white boxes alongside an industrial garage here look like those in any electric-car charging station. But they work in a way that could upend the relationship Americans have with energy.
The retrofitted Mini Coopers and other vehicles plugged into sockets where a Chrysler plant once stood do more than suck energy out of the multi-state electricity grid. They also send power back into it.
With every zap of juice into or out of the region’s fragile power network, the car owner gets paid.
The pilot project here at the University of Delaware has had enough success to set off a frenzy of activity in the auto and electricity industries. Entrepreneurs and government agencies see the technology as a possible solution to a vexing dilemma – how to store renewable energy affordably so it can be available when it is needed, not only when the wind blows or the sun shines.
“This is a fascinating option,” said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. “The technology works. You can do this. The question is … what do we need to do to make it happen?”
The idea is that utilities would pay vehicle owners to store electricity in the batteries of electric vehicles when the power grid has a surplus and drain electricity back out of them when demand spikes.
The plan takes advantage of a key fact about cars: They spend most of their time parked. The technology makes idle vehicles a potential source of storage for utilities and cash for car owners.
The concept is described as the “Cash Back Car” by Jon Wellinghoff, the recently retired chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “It provides another incentive for people to buy electric cars,” he said.
The technology could solve a potentially serious problem. The power grid, a massive tangle of power plants, transformers and thousands of miles of wire, needs to maintain a steady and balanced flow of power. Sudden surges threaten crashes that can cause blackouts. That makes the stop-and-go nature of energy from the wind and sun a constant source of worry.
A cost-effective method to store renewable energy and control its flow into the system has long eluded the energy industry, which has taken to calling storage the “Holy Grail.”
Of course, nothing with electricity is simple. To begin with, carmakers are not in the business of keeping the electricity grid stable. They build cars to perform on the road and worry what all this usage will do to their batteries.
“Almost without exception, their first response is, ‘If you use my battery for that purpose, we will void the warranty,’ ” said Tom Gage, CEO of EVGrid, a California vehicle-to-grid technology company.
Innovators in the field are gradually convincing car manufacturers of the potential to create a “value proposition for the car owner” and thus boost sales, Gage said. Ultimately, however, carmakers may be put at ease by experiments being conducted by the military.
The Navy has joined with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test batteries used for driving against those that are plugged into the grid for storage.
And the week before Christmas, the Pentagon transported 13 Nissan Leafs to a Southern California Edison charging facility in Pomona, Calif., as part of a $20 million program involving dozens of vehicles at Los Angeles Air Force Base and the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, in California’s Mojave Desert.
The Pentagon hopes to jump-start mass production of the chargers and software involved across the country.
“We’re looking to determine if we can make electric vehicles cost-competitive with conventional vehicles,” said Camron Gorguinpour, executive director of the Defense Department’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Program.
But charging batteries is just one hurdle. An even bigger challenge is reshaping the tangle of algorithms that make up the power grid.
“It can be an administrative nightmare to have a bunch of little power sources being fed into the grid,” said Scott Shepard, an analyst at Navigant Consulting.