In Editorial Articles, Original Blog Content

AS IF petrolheads did not already have reasons aplenty to hate electric vehicles. With oil prices rising inexorably (the recent dip notwithstanding) drivers of these silent, soulless battery-powered contraptions are set to look smugly on as gas-guzzlers burn a hole in their owners’ pockets. Now, adding insult to injury, research suggests that electric cars might actually make a profit for their owners.

At present, in order to meet sudden surges in demand, power companies have to bring additional generators online at a moment’s notice, a procedure that is both expensive and inefficient. If there were enough electric vehicles around, though, a fair number would be bound to be plugged in and recharging at any given time. Why not rig this idle fleet so that, when demand for electricity spikes, they stop drawing current from the grid and instead start pumping it back?

The idea, known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G), sounds great in theory. But what about in practice? To find out, Willett Kempton and Nathaniel Pearre, of the University of Delaware, has for the past three years been running a fleet of seven electric cars linked up to his local electricity company’s servers by a wireless system that monitors their activity, in order to predict when each car is likely to be available as a power supply.

What the power company would be paying for is not so much the electricity itself as the availability of that electricity at zero notice. At the moment, peaks in demand have to be sated by firing up expensive rapid-response generators, such as gas turbines. Speed of availability is as important as total capacity. Battery-driven cars, if plugged in appropriately, provide power instantly—faster, even, than a stand-by power station. That is where they truly score. And, for that reason, owners would actually be paid a tariff related to when and for how long their cars were available for the power company to tap. In Delaware, this amounts to about 30 cents an hour. Add in a fixed fee payable just for being part of the system and Dr Kempton and Dr Pearre think an income of $4,000 a year per car might be possible. That is a sum far greater than the $225 that Nissan, for instance, thinks will be the average annual cost of the electricity needed to power one of its Leafs.

Of course, as the supply of electric vehicles increases, the value of each to the power company will fall. But even when such vehicles are commonplace, V2G should still be worthwhile from the car-owner’s point of view, according to a study carried out in Britain by Ricardo, an engineering firm, and National Grid, an electricity distributor. The report suggests that owners of electric vehicles in Britain could count on it to be worth as much as £600 ($970) a year in 2020, when an electric fleet 2m strong could provide 6% of the country’s grid-balancing capacity.

There is, it must be admitted, the issue of the additional cost of the equipment to manage all this electrical too-ing and fro-ing, not least the installation of charging points that can support current flows in both directions. But if the decision to make such points bi-directional were made now, when little of the infrastructure needed to sustain a fleet of electric vehicles has yet been built, the additional cost would not be great. And then everybody would be happy: car owners, power companies and consumers of electricity. Everybody, that is, except petrolheads.

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