January 30, 2011 {authors} {/authors}

The coming electric car explosion

It all depends on gas prices

{authors} By The coming electric car explosion {/authors}

Advances in battery technology are propelling the emerging success of the electric vehicle market, with manufacturers like General Motors, Nissan and Ford introducing new models this year to steal market share from Toyota, Honda and Tesla.

“Depending upon gas prices, the use of electric vehicles could explode,” says Dan Zimmerle, power system R&D manager at Colorado State University’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory in Fort Collins. “In some regions of the country (such as Colorado), electric prices are relatively low and fuel prices are relatively locked at the national price so it could become very financially attractive for people to move to electric vehicles.

During the “Smart Grid Live” event in Fort Collins earlier this month, we had a chance to talk with Zimmerle, who also serves as an adjunct professor at CSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

How the grid will handle the growing number of drivers charging up and what to do with all those lithium-ion batteries when they no longer operate at their peak performance were some of the issues we addressed during our conversation (which we videotaped for Planet-Profit Report.)

The grid can handle it – as long as car owners don’t all charge up at once

“There have been some studies by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and also some other parties that show the grid is technically capable of handling the load from a large vehicle fleet without too much trouble – with one caveat, which is you have to able to control when the charging occurs,” Zimmerle says.

“If charging just happens randomly it can create huge problems. A particular scenario that is a real killer problem for the grid is that everybody arrives home at about 6 p.m. -- which is already your electrical peak -- and then they plug in their vehicle and they charge it full rate. That would be a horrible problem.  The real key to electrification is to be able to shift the charge times out of that peak spot.”

Battery life beyond the cars

Remember images of discarded cell phones piled up like mountains of junk? Consider what will happen to thousands of car batteries after they fall below usable standards for electric cars. Zimmerle sees a solution – remanufacture the batteries and use them to shore up the grid.

“The way batteries and vehicles are set up is when they drop to about 80 percent of their charge capacity, you start to see a significant difference in the amount of mileage you can drive with your electric vehicle,” Zimmerle said. “And that’s unacceptable from an electric vehicle user standpoint. However, the batteries are still capable of holding 70 or 80 percent of their total charge.”

And that’s enough to keep them from the landfill.

 “One of the applications we’re looking at is whether there is an afterlife for those batteries. Take the battery out of the vehicle, remanufacture it and use it as a grid-buffering device … to either move energy between peak and non-peak times or potentially smooth power transmissions from renewable energy resources,” Zimmerle says.

“At first appearance, it looks fairly attractive based upon the fact that right now those batteries might go to a recycling operation, and it’s a very expensive operation. Re-using the batteries might be a fairly low cost remanufacturing process and that would make if financially attractive.” 

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