Electric vehicles could help store NW wind power

Sep 13, 2011

RICHLAND, Wash. – As the Pacific Northwest begins to integrate more renewable energy, grid operators sometimes have trouble predicting the variability that comes with it. Researchers have found a way to use electric vehicles to help balance wind power’s inconsistency.

For the power grid to work, the same amount of power must be produced as the amount that people are using at any given moment. Add sometimes-inconsistent renewable energy into the mix, like wind power, and that’s where grid management gets tricky. Bonneville Power Administration spokesperson Michael Milstein says matching variable power generation with what people use must be accurate.

“Otherwise the grid itself kind of goes out of balance. The cycles of energy get thrown off, and appliances don’t work right and that sort of thing," Milstein says.

But the system could get easier. To help balance out wind’s variability researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., have found a way to help balance supply and demand. Scientist Michael Kintner-Meyer says electric cars can to do it.

“It’s indicative of the resource potential that lies in these vehicles. Vehicles, we’re expecting, could produce a fair amount of these new balancing requirements as the number of vehicles grow and as the technology becomes much more readily available.”

Most helpful in springtime

A “grid-friendly” technology would charge vehicles depending on how much extra energy was available at that moment. That’s different from how things work right now. Think of charging a cell phone. Plug it into the wall, and it charges at a consistent rate. Not so with Kintner-Meyer’s technology. Vehicles would charge slower or faster depending on how windy it is. More wind means more power on the grid. With the new smart technology that surplus power could now be put to work. Kintner-Meyer says this could be especially helpful during the spring.

“We have a lot of runoff from the snow-melt and high wind conditions, that we have too little load at night, when the load goes down and people sleep and the commercial buildings are not in operation.”

Kitner-Meyer says more renewable power will continue to come online as companies try to meet energy standards. He estimates that to balance the northwest power grid by 2019, more than one out of 10 cars on the road will need to be electric vehicles.

“We think it’s a fairly small number. We’re not saying that all of the vehicles will need to be engaged. Currently we don’t have as many vehicles.”

Smart charging

He says this type of charging does not hurt car batteries.

This technology won’t put power back onto the grid – that’s the next step. But for now, Kintner-Meyer says smart charging is an opportunity to take. He’s working with charging station developers and automotive engineers to make sure new cars and charging stations correctly communicate with each other.