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GE's Smart Grid Gets Ready for Electric Cars (and Wind Power, Too)

LINDEN, NEW JERSEY--We were in an industrial zone bounded by I-95, the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island, gasoline refineries (the kind Bruce Springsteen sang about in "Born in the USA") and power plants, including a 900-megawatt General Electric cogeneration plant that produces both electricity and steam for the refineries. And we were just 15 miles from where the "Wizard of Menlo Park," Thomas A. Edison, invented the phonograph and light bulb 130 years ago. Did General Electric mention that at the ceremony marking its new "smart grid" connection between New Jersey and New York City, enabling these two big power consumers to talk to each other? You bet they did.

To get ready for electric vehicles, and prepare to handle much larger sources of intermittent renewable energy (wind, solar), the grid is going to have to get both smarter and faster moving. GE installed its three variable frequency transformers in Linden, according to Alex Urquhart, president and CEO of GE Energy Financial Services, so it could (in just a second) move 315 megawatts of electricity between the generating stations in New Jersey and the demand in New York. It can also reverse and move power back to Jersey (where it tends to be expensive).

Three hundred fifteen megawatts is enough electricity for 300,000 homes. I sat through the technical debriefing so you wouldn't have to. Essentially, GE can tap into power generated in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland (PJM) transmission system for its 315 megs, then use the transformers (the largest of their kind anywhere, 35 feet in length, and weighing 100 tons) to make the power usable by New York City's New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) grid. The electricity is shipped through an updated cable under the Arthur Kill River that's been there since 1991.

What does this all have to do with cars, you ask? Well, in response to my question, Stephen Whitley, president and CEO of NYISO, said, "Wind power, one of the fastest-growing forms of generation, is mostly produced at night, which is when we also want to recharge electric cars. We are adding 8,000 new megawatts of wind, and right now we don't have demand at night--which means some of that renewable energy is wasted. We need to use the smart grid to send price signals to EV owners that will lead them to charge at night from wind power."

That means variable electricity pricing, which Whitley admitted now exists mostly for large power users, not consumers. Whitely, and other utility observers, have said repeatedly that millions of EVs can be added to the grid without adding new generating capacity if they're charged off-peak.

Since renewable energy, especially wind and solar, are intermittent, GE's new capacity is timely. The transmission connection with New York City allows GE to send power (bought on the open market in a bidding process by customers such as Conectiv Energy Supply, Con Ed and Cargill Power and Gas Markets) where there's a need for it.

My visit to Linden included a tour of the transformers (see video). A million miles of wire was installed as part of the project. That's a lot of wiring! The unmanned control room was eerie, with a dozen computers fitted with chairs (even though they're usually empty). The operations are monitored from several locations, including Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and New York City.

We visited one of the three rotors, which had to be lifted into place by crane, and delivered with a truck built for the purpose. "Go ahead and touch it: This is what 100 megawatts feels like," said tour guide Dan Walsh, vice president of GE Energy Financial Services, over a deafening roar. One hundred megawatts feels warm.

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