By Stephen Stapczynski
When Damien Maguire moved to the countryside outside Dublin, he struggled to keep the lights on at home because of the town’s constant power outages. He found a solution inside his electric cars: their batteries.
A tinkerer who posts videos of his hand-built vehicles on YouTube, Maguire devised a wiring system that lets him suck power out of them when they’re parked in the garage. Now that the house and cars are connected, he also can use the batteries to store energy from his backyard solar panels, another power source that’s not totally reliable, given Ireland’s weather.
“We really, really need storage in order to make better use of wind and solar power, and electric cars could provide it,’‘ said Daniel Brenden, an analyst who studies the electricity market at BMI Research in London. “The potential is so huge.’‘
Today, fewer than 1 percent of the world’s vehicles are electric, but by 2040 more than half of all new cars will run on the same juice as televisions, computers and hair dryers, according to estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Once cars and everything else are fed from the same source, they can share the same plumbing.
As it stands, energy generated by wind and solar farms often goes to waste because there’s nowhere to store it. South Australia solved the problem by investing an estimated $80 million to $90 million to build the world’s biggest lithium ion battery on the edge of the Outback. The result is a massive cluster of white boxes that is essentially a huge reservoir for electricity. Inside are the same batteries Tesla Inc. uses in its cars.
But what if that reservoir was divided between millions of cars already on the road? That’s the vehicle-to-grid concept.
It’s promising because the newest electric vehicles can hold enough energy to power the average U.S. home for several days. For most drivers, whose cars sit idle 90 percent of the time, sharing their batteries would make good use of a very under-utilized resource. (It’s like Airbnb, but with car parts instead of seldom-used apartments.) For the utilities, borrowing people’s batteries would mean not having to build or buy them.
In the real world, though, there’s a tangle of complications. Elaborate new computer networks would have to be built, carmakers and power companies would have to collaborate, and people would have to stop thinking of their cars as a private bubble. The main practical problem is getting drivers to charge up when there’s a power surplus, and getting them to give back when the public grid has a deficit, all the while making sure people’s cars never run out of juice.
To get a sense of the difficulties, consider the struggle the world’s No. 1 seller of electric cars, Nissan, has had convincing customers in Japan to try a simple system like the one Maguire jerry-rigged for himself at his home in the Irish countryside.
By allowing car batteries to serve as a residential power source, Nissan says its vehicle-to-home service cuts utility bills by about $40 per month. Still, only about 7,000 car owners have adopted the system in the six years since it started, a tiny number compared with the 81,500 Leaf EVs that Nissan has sold so far in the country.
Declining to discuss any travails, a spokesman said the company is “very pleased” with its sales and sees growing consumer interest in the technology.
Meanwhile, Nissan is trying other experiments. Last year, it partnered with Japan’s biggest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to design a vehicle-to-grid system that takes the Maguire idea and ratchets-up the complexity.