GE's Smart Grid: Plugged-in Cars (and Kitchens)

Last Updated Jul 15, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Cooking a meal--or driving to work--will soon mean plugging into the smart grid. You can see what it will look like at the "kitchen of the future." It's a bank of homey-looking appliances off to the side in General Electric's Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna, New York. At some point in the near future, explained Natarajan Venkatakrishnan, director of R&D at GE Appliances, the smart homemaker will be able to push buttons and his or her stove, washer/dryer and refrigerator will continue working but with their electric load cut in half. Better yet, the smart appliances will interact with the grid and make intelligent electric-use decisions on their own.

Here, GE's Juan de Bedout explains on video how the smart grid will work (and how your car will plug into it): Back at the kitchen, we watched as Venkatakrishnan adjusted a setting on a computer monitor and several of the coils on the electric stove stopped glowing. In fact, they were only neon lights, but they simulated the real-life experience of customers in places like Boulder, Colorado and Louisville, Kentucky where "smart grid" pilot programs are underway.

The grid-connected appliances will know in real time when the power company is experiencing peak loads. What's more, utilities will start offering variable pricing based on time-of-day usage patterns. Run your dryer at night when the power plant has excess generating capacity and you'll save significant money.

Mark Brian is taking part in a GE-endorsed smart grid experiment in Louisville, and he says that simply by using energy-efficient appliances and changing his behavior--doing laundry on the weekends, turning off lights--he's reduced his electric bill 20 percent. "It's primarily behavior driven," he said. "When my daughter runs her electric space heater, I can see the consumption go up dramatically on our home meter, and that leads us to not use it as much. And we do a lot of the same things we used to, but at different times."

A new GE/Iposos poll shows that three out of five U.S. and UK consumers would change their electric consumption behavior if the smart grid was an option, checking their energy use online at least once a week. Installing a smarter grid would be equal to planting 160 million trees or taking 130 million cars off the road, GE officials said. But getting the country wired may take some time: There are 140 million electric meters in the U.S., and replacing them with smart meters will alone take 10 years, officials said.

In addition to its work in Louisville, GE is also pairing with island partners and the University of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute in a smart grid project on the island of Maui.

The smart home includes a garage, and the car--particularly the plug-in hybrid--is a big part of GE's smart grid plans. According to Mark Little, the director of GE Global Research, "We're thinking about how plug-in hybrids might impact the grid of the future, and provide a load that is significantly different from that of today." Several start-up carmakers--including Bright Automotive and Aptera--say their new EVs will come with software to interact with the grid of the future.

The plans for plug-in hybrids include what is called "vehicle-to-grid" technology. EVs being built today have on-board technology designed to interact with the smart grid that will not only allow them to be recharged during off-peak times, but will actually be able to return energy to the power company from their larger battery packs. And consumers will be reimbursed for that. "It's a form of distributed energy that we're looking at," said Bryan J. Olnick of Florida Light and Power. "We need to be able to bill for that, and it's a complex charge."

Jim Motavalli photo