The grid already is responsible for running our offices, cooling our homes, powering our TVs, keeping our food cool and doing more or less everything else a modern human needs. Now, we're going to ask it to help drive us around town as well.
That shouldn't be difficult in the next year or so, when there won't be that many electric vehicles taking power from utilities. However, boosters hope that we'll see a million of these cars on the road by 2015. So researchers and industry officials will be paying close attention to make sure that the grid will be able to adapt.
Electrical grids are designed for peak use, something that only happens on the hottest or coldest days, so there's enough energy on the grid to power as many electric cars as we're likely to buy -- so long as we pay attention to when we charge them.
Early on, the worst stresses could be at the local level, said Tom Turrentine, director of UC Davis Institute of Transportation Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center. Problems could occur, for instance, if an affluent community with a lot of old homes decided to get electric cars all at once, and then charge them all at once and overload a transformer, he said.
The key to ensuring that a large number of electric cars are effectively integrated into the grid will be managing when and how quickly the cars charge. If everyone gets home at 5:30 p.m. -- a heavy electricity use time anyway -- and plugs in their cars, there could be trouble..
"The 240 [volt charger] is 3.3 kw charger, basically the same as a clothes dryer in your garage," Britta Gross, director of infrastructure commercialization for General Motors, told AOL News. "But it's a load that's on for three or four hours."
For right now, the Volt will have a feature that delays charging until a certain time when normal demand has dropped off. In about 10 years, however, Gross hopes that smart grid technology will be able to monitor how much electricity is being used at any given moment and let the batteries start charging when the price of a kilowatt-hour drops below a certain point.
Electric cars will only truly be clean if they aren't getting their power from places like dirty coal plants -- and they might actually prove useful to utilities trying to transition into renewable energy.
Current electrical production is "dispatchable" -- meaning that if grid managers need to burn an oil or coal fire hotter to get more power, they can do that. But natural forces are not so easy to control, and in most parts of the country, wind generators are most productive at night, when people aren't using that much electricity. Electric cars could be able to soak up that extra production when plasma TVs aren't on to do so -- and even sell that energy back to the grid when it's in higher demand.
"There's some excitement that if you do bring all these batteries into our electrical system, that this will be a lot more batteries than we've ever seen before," Turrentine told AOL News. "And what could you do with all that storage?"
We need smart grid technologies that are strong enough to communicate directly with vehicles, according to Gregg Fishman, a spokesman for California ISO, which manages the power for about 82 percent of California. He told AOL News that would allow consumers to set their preferences from the iPhones and BlackBerrys, then let the car figure out what it needs to do based on electrical demand.
Fishman said that an ideal situation would look something like this:
"The car acts like a little shock absorber," he continued.
The grid isn't nearly ready for that kind of communication yet, but renewable energy and electric cars both have a long way to go, as well. In order to take advantage of the environmental benefits of electric cars, and make effective use of renewable energy, all three will have to grow together.
For now, the Volt, which goes into production Nov. 11, will cost $41,500. So all that will only matter if people buy the car..