Game Changer? Integrated EV/Distributed Energy Proposal

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This proposal involves a simple synergy of government incentives and distributed energy storage applications. But first, I’d like to briefly discuss some of the issues that this solution addresses.

The Issues

Climate Change

Humans are releasing too much CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere. This is causing heat from sunlight to stay trapped in the atmosphere and increase global temperatures. One of the major issues with this is that it causes arctic ice to melt and this melting ice releases more CO2 and other gasses which have an even more pronounced greenhouse effect, in essence causing a positive feedback loop (positive feedback is almost always bad, and in this case it definitely is). We need to figure out ways to decrease CO2 emissions and reverse the effects of climate change.

Global Economic Recession

Without going into this issue too deeply, the global economy is experiencing a slowdown due to numerous problems. The world need to create healthier financial systems and more sustainable businesses. Too much of the global economy depends on unsustainable business practices.

Energy Infrastructure Crisis

The current energy infrastructure in the U.S. is antiquated. It struggles to support delivery of peak loads and is literally falling apart in many locations. Unfortunately, a complete overhaul of the system would cost trillions of dollars; a piecemeal solution is the only feasible answer, but there needs to be a vision or the inefficiencies will come back to haunt future engineers.

The Proposal

Bear with me as I talk through a proposal that I think will help alleviate some of the preceding issues.

The Peak Energy Infrastructure

One of the big issues with electric utilities these days is that they have to build and maintain enough generation infrastructure to deal with peak load. The problem here is that peak load only happens 1% of the time, annually (I’m ballparking, but it really is very low). But if a utility didn’t build adequate generation the system would fail at the worst possible times (think of the hottest day of the year and everyone’s ACs are shutting off; think of the coldest day of the year and everyone’s electric heaters are switching off). Therefore, utilities must build generation capability for these worst case scenarios.

Another way to deal with this issue is to store energy when demand is low and put that energy back on the grid when demand spikes back up. The problem with this solution is that battery technology is not where we need it to be in terms of energy density and cost- and so utilities cannot afford to buy huge batteries and other types of electricity storage systems in order to implement this type of arbitrage scenario. That’s where electric vehicles come in.

Electric Vehicles as Storage Facilities

Electric vehicles (EVs) have batteries on board, by design and definition, so why not use these batteries to store energy? Well, first of all, as mentioned, battery technology is still relatively green for these uses. Plus, you would need hundreds of thousands, even millions of EVs to make a difference nationwide. But what if everyone had an EV in their garage? Sure, but who wants to volunteer their EV and its precious battery in order to solve an esoteric problem such as presented here?

The Feds and Our Money

Enter the federal government. It can subsidize American electric vehicle manufacturers and provide incentives for car-buying consumers to purchase EVs. But here’s the catch: when you buy a government-sponsored EV you sign a contract saying that your car will be available for arbitrage use a certain amount of time every week, or month, or whatever. Different contracts can be drawn up for different needs. So what this amounts to is the federal government supporting domestic electric car manufacturers and charging stations and battery manufacturers, and easing the pain of purchasing a relatively expensive electric vehicle in exchange for support of a larger solution. In this way the economy can be stimulated (and you can bet battery research will boom because of this, and EV prices will come down as a result) and the energy storage issue can, to a certain extent, be dealt with. And as far as the atmosphere is concerned, more EVs on the road, displacing internal combustion engine cars, can only help lower the CO2 levels in the air. As a side benefit, air quality will improve and smog, emphysema, and cancer levels will drop. Sounds good to me.

The Roadblocks

Now I’m not a federal subsidy guru or an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I like a good idea when I hear one, even when it’s in my own head. I tried to consider some of the arguments against a solution like this. Here’s a few, with my thoughts on them. I’d also like to hear some more from readers in the comments.

• The Feds shouldn’t be subsidizing anything.

Well, if that’s what you think then that’s that, but in my political philosophy the whole purpose of government is to support and engender solutions that benefit everyone. You may say the taxpayer doesn’t benefit in this scenario, but I think averting a climate disaster and lowering cancer rates benefits everyone, save oncologists on Mars.

• Too expensive, won’t make a dent.

Fair enough, this is an expensive endeavor. But as long as we’re spending billions on wars and propping up a toxic petroleum industry with insane subsidies, I think we can find the relatively modest amounts needed to jumpstart a beneficial cycle like the one proposed here.

• Too many variables, where’s the business case, you’re making numbers up, etc.

Again, fair enough. I thought of this yesterday while working on a number of projects and it sent a shiver through my spine. I figured instead of sitting on it and letting it grow stale I’d get the idea out there to the smart people of the world. We’ve got huge issues we need to deal with sooner than later. I hope this proposal can gain traction and do some good. We’ll see.

Article by Stephan Williams, appearing courtesy 2GreenEnergy.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.