Monday, August 24, 2009

Electric cars will power up the grid

Andrew Heasley

The Age, August 25, 2009

RATHER than triggering power blackouts, electric cars could help power your house if smart recharging is introduced, a Melbourne scientist said yesterday.

As momentum gathers ahead of the foreshadowed mass adoption of battery-powered electric cars, they could be part of the energy management solution rather than the problem.

University of Melbourne physicist Steven Prawer, who heads the university's Melbourne Materials Institute, is among those who will spearhead research into the many unanswered questions about energy needs and the introduction of electric cars.

The professor's projects were boosted yesterday with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the university and the local arm of fledgling electric car recharging company Better Place.

Better Place has entered a research partnership with the university to explore the challenges that electric cars pose.

''It starts off as a question about batteries, and very quickly derives into questions about policy, optimisation, energy, modelling and education,'' Professor Prawer said.

Foremost is how the electricity network will cope with the added demands of electric car recharging, when already it struggles to cope with the drain posed by air-conditioners on a hot day.

''If you get a million people coming home and plugging in their cars, you blow the grid,'' Professor Prawer said. ''But that's not the way you're going to do it. It can be a highly optimised system. Imagine we have a very hot day in Melbourne … if there are a million [electric car] batteries plugged in, you can suck in energy from those cars [to dwellings] in an emergency.'' The energy transfer could be two-way, he said.

In effect, electric car batteries could form part of the Victorian electricity infrastructure.

And the introduction of electric cars is not that far off. Mitsubishi will introduce its iMiEV plug-in, battery-powered city car here next year. And Nissan is expected to follow in 2012 with its electric hatchback, called the Leaf.

Better Place Australia's chief executive, Evan Thornley, said the university partnership was on the leading edge.

''Things that we might learn here are about battery behaviour, how it interacts with the charge network … modelling grid impact, grid optimisation, utilising the storage capacity of batteries are likely to be world-leading pieces of research,'' he said.

''If you don't have smart charging, you'll have huge problems with the grid.''

The research partnership is initially for 12 months.

''We look forward to a long-term partnership with the university,'' Mr Thornley said, being one of about 20 such partnerships Better Place has signed with universities around the world.

The university would adopt electric cars on their fleet when the cars become commercially available, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis said.

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