“Vehicle-to-Grid: A New Spin on Car Payments”
by Dan Ferber
Miller Mc-Cune [now Pacific Standard], November, 2011
[Ferber notes: I’d pitched the editor cold a few months earlier, never heard back, gotten busy, and dropped the ball temporarily. I approached him at the NASW meeting in New Haven, followed up with a (slightly) updated pitch, and got the assignment. I then pitched the travel after I got the assignment, arguing that the story would be better if they’d pay for a trip to Delaware and Pennsylvania so I could do some on-the-scene reporting. He agreed on this approach and then agreed to a modest budget for the trip.]
I’m writing to follow up on our brief conversation last weekend at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in New Haven, just after your panel on new funding models for journalism. I’m re-sending the pitch I mentioned for a feature article on the vehicle-to-grid model:
In November 2009, Willett Kempton parked his electric car, plugged it in, and began earning
$300 a month. The payments came from a regional organization that operates the electrical grid in Delaware, where Kempton works and lives. In the process, Kempton’s electric car became the first car on the planet to help stabilize the electrical grid and make good money as it sat parked.
If Kempton realizes his ambitions, tens of millions of the nation’s electric vehicles will follow. He’s the nation’s leading proponent of the vehicle-to-grid model, a grand plan to connect the nation’s growing fleet of electric vehicles with a smarter electric grid. Kempton, who directs the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, and other vehicle-to-grid proponents say the plan will help stabilize the climate because electric cars emit significantly less carbon dioxide per mile than gasoline-powered cars, and because emissions will fall further as the nation shifts to renewable electricity sources.
The vehicle-to-grid model would solve other problems for both car owners and grid operators, proponents say. Plug-in electric cars like the Nissan Leaf need powerful batteries to accelerate to highway speeds and travel far enough on a charge to satisfy their owners. But these batteries cost so much that plug-in electric cars could remain too expensive for many consumers. If grid
operators paid electric-car owners significant sums to tap that capacity when cars sat parked, owners would be better able to afford them, speeding their adoption.
Grid operators would benefit from this new and economical way to store electricity. The nation’s dozen grid-operating organizations need stored electricity to draw on at any moment. They use it to compensate for occasional brief outages and to maintain the steady 60-hertz current that our devices and appliances rely on. Today they buy that electricity from outside companies, who maintain reserve power in flywheels and heavy-duty batteries. But they worry that as renewable but intermittent energy sources like wind and solar are phased in, they’ll need significantly more storage capacity, says Ken Huber, director of smart grid development for PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for the mid-Atlantic region, which is paying for Kempton’s car. Electric-cars could provide that capacity. They’re built to power cars for up to 200 miles, but most people drive much less in a day, leaving untapped electricity in each battery. That’s why PJM Interconnection collaborates on vehicle-to-grid development with Kempton’s center at the University of Delaware, Huber says.
I propose to write a feature article for Miller-McCune exploring the promise of the vehicle-to- grid model. I’ll use Kempton’s 14-year quest to implement the model as a narrative spine, and incorporate scenes from visits to Kempton’s workshops at the University of Delaware. (He has agreed to show me around and let me drive his electric car.) Huber, of PJM Interconnection, has also agreed to help.
For the story I’ll speak with supporters of the vehicle-to-grid plan, and with skeptics who argue that vehicle-to-grid is too expensive and that there are easier ways to store energy. I’ll describe peer-reviewed studies by Kempton and others that show the plan is technically and economically feasible. In one, Kempton’s team found that if the 200 million vehicles Americans now drive were plug-in electric cars that connected to the grid, they could store seven times the nation’s current daily electricity consumption. In another, Kempton and Jasna Tomic of CALSTART, an NGO that promotes clean transportation, found that a corporate fleet of 252 electric vehicles would earn its owner more than $650,000 a year, or more than $2,500 annually per car. Finally, I’ll lay out Kempton’s long-term vision: “to have most of the light vehicles in the industrialized world powered primarily by electricity, to have that electricity integrated with the electrical grid, and to do that with 100 percent renewable power and not have the lights flicker.”
About me: I’m a freelance journalist who has covered science, technology and the environment for many magazines. I’m a contributing correspondent for Science and a contributor to many national magazines, including Popular Science,Audubon and Reader’s Digest. I’m also co-author, with Paul Epstein, M.D., of the upcoming book, Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Public Health and What We Can Do About It (University of California Press, April 2011). Here are links to three clips that I believe showcase my reporting and writing ability, one in Science, one in Popular Science, and one in Audubon. Here’s my resume.
I think this will make a fascinating article for Miller-McCune’s readers. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best, Dan Ferber