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Smart Cars for the Smart Grid: Big Savings, High Costs

Did you ever stop and think about how "dumb" our electricity grid is? We pay the same rate for a kilowatt hour of electricity at noon as at 3 a.m., when demand is much lower and the utilities are creating power that no one can use. And it's not interconnected, so a wind farm in, say, South Dakota, can't send its considerable electricity generation to population centers like New York.

As companies like Coloumb, ECOtality and Better Place start the arduous task of wiring up communities and, indeed, whole countries for electric vehicle (EV) recharging, they're dependent on the same flat-price, pre-digital grid we've had for 70 or more years. But that's changing rapidly, and Boulder, Colorado points the way forward to "smart" grid of tomorrow.

Boulder has 50,000 electric meters, and big utility Xcel Energy is spending $100 million to make about half of them smart. Using a forthcoming Google ap, homeowners will be able to see regular readouts of how much electricity they're using right on their computers. GridPoint meters allow readings every 15 minutes, and send out an email summary once a week.

"Boulder is getting elements of a smart grid, but it's not there yet," says Clay Perry, a spokesman for the trade group Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). "Smart grids will ultimately allow consumers with EVs to recharge at optimal times for both the utility and the customer," he said. "And ideally, they should give those customers the option of selling their whole EV charge back to the grid."

That's called vehicle-to-grid technology, or V2G, and Pacific Gas & Electric, and other utilities have been championing it. Here's a video from a recent press conference, with Google and General Electric talking about the many benefits of the smart grid: Some EV makers are also equipping their cars for interactivity with the smart grid--technology that isn't there yet. Both Bright Motors (which is launching a plug-in hybrid delivery van, with plans to produce 50,000 by 2013) and Aptera (whose Jetsons-like 2e electric car will be on the market at the end of the year) have on-board software allowing them to recharge at optimal times--and sell power back, too.

The current grid is six million miles of distribution and transmission wiring. Perry estimates that fully rewiring the country for an interactive smart grid is "at least a couple of decades away." The whole thing could cost $200 billion or more. But President Obama has put down a deposit with $11 billion in funding for the smart grid as part of the $787 billion stimulus spending package.

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