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Ford Readies EV Fleets, Prepares to Connect to the Smart Grid

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN--Parked in a row at its Dearborn proving grounds, Ford showed off a trio of electric cars: A Transit Connect commercial van (to be introduced next year), a battery electric version of the Focus (coming in 2011) and an Escape-based plug-in hybrid (2012, but not as an Escape).

The cars (a $14 billion investment for the company) were not the stars, however. We were in Dearborn to talk about Ford's ongoing smart grid partnership, which it launched with Southern California Edison in 2007. The collaboration has since grown to include 11 more utilities, plus the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The goal is to pave the way for an updated infrastructure that will allow millions of electric vehicles (EVs) like the ones described above to plug in every day.

On hand was Ford scion and executive chairman Bill Ford, who pointed out that the "hardware," in other words, the vehicles themselves, "will not be the limiting factor" as the EV revolution unfolds. Without charging stations and an enabling grid, he said, EVs will be "an interesting science experiment."

When I asked the simple but all-important question: "What happens if everybody plugs in at once?" meaning at 6 p.m. when the commuters return home, Ford said, "This is a problem we can't solve unilaterally, but it clearly has to be solved." With its partners, Ford does have one part of the solution: a new intelligent vehicle-to-grid communications system that will be installed in the 21 Escape plug-in hybrids currently in utility test fleets (where they've logged 75,000 miles).

Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies, said that charging solutions for consumers "won't work if they require the Geek Squad to explain it--it has to be kept simple." Ford's interface works through an in-vehicle touch screen, and also wirelessly to enable cell phone alerts and remote customer operation. The consumer can set time-of-day charging, allow interruptible service (so a utility could stop temporarily stop the electron flow if an overload was developing), and green charging options--from, say, wind or solar power. See the video for a demonstration from Ford battery systems expert Douglas Oliver: Gioia said that the vaunted vehicle-to-grid solution by which cars could return electricity to the grid, advanced by Google and Pacific Gas & Electric, among others, is not likely to make it into the first generation of plug-in cars. In an interview, she said that Ford is talking to charging providers such as Better Place and Coulomb, but she added that battery swapping--a key part of Better Place's plan--could be a non-starter. "I'm not sure it's viable in the short or mid-term," she said.

Also on hand were representatives of three of Ford's utility partners. Mike Ligett of Southeast-based Progress Energy asked, "Is the grid ready for plug-in cars?" and then answered his own question in the affirmative. "It will not collapse if everybody plugs in together," he said. "It's ready in the same sense that the Internet is ready for your wireless laptop."

Ligett showed an interesting chart indicating that if six percent of vehicles were battery based, charging them would represent a load somewhere between microwaves and hair dryers. (The largest current loads are central air conditioning, followed by electric water heaters and clothes dryers.

It's plain that EVs are the biggest challenge to the grid since central air, but Vince Dow of DTE Energy in Michigan said that utilities handled that, and are getting ready to accommodate electric cars. Finally, Southern California Edison's Ed Kjaer said that the biggest issue was not adding vehicles to the grid--"we have a lot of excess capacity"--but "dealing with that last 10 to 15 feet, getting energy into the car at the point of fueling." He said SCE is studying zipcode maps to determine where the early adopters might be. One clue, he said, is to look at concentrations of residential solar. Where there's solar, there will be EVs, he said.

Jim Motavalli photo