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April 09, 2008

Cars Slated to Solve Denmark’s Wind Problem

Denmark gets 20% of its electricity from the wind; but that’s a problem. It isn’t a steady 20%; sometimes it’s 40%; sometimes it’s none.  Because the sources of the other 80% of their electricity can’t be turned of whenever there’s a gust of wind, Denmark sells surplus electricity to neighbors. That requires bigger and bigger grid connections and involves sales at very low prices.

The plan is to use electric cars to help solve the surplus problem, reduce pollution, and reduce petroleum imports. According to an article in the WSJ (subscription required),  the Danish utility Dong Energy A/S has a deal with Better PLC (aka Project Better Place in Palo Alto founded by former SAP CEO and blogger Shai Agassi). More about Project Better Place and its plan to market electric cars like cellphones with an upfront subsidy and a profit on the energy sold to run them in an upcoming post.

The electric cars, of course, are perfect for soaking up energy at night when other demand is low but wind speeds high. Assuming variable electric pricing, there’s an incentive for people to “top off” when electrons are cheapest. Swappable batteries and a network of battery swap stations by 2010 are part of the plan so there is an incentive, also, for both consumers and rechargers to invest in extra batteries to make sure they DON’T have to charge on windless nights when electricity costs more. From a grid POV, providing extra energy at night from traditional sources is much less of a problem and expense than any addition to peak load.

Let’s riff on this plan. Imagine that you have a Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) in your garage (The cars being built for the Better Project by a Renault-Nissan alliance are pure electric but you wanted more range since America doesn’t yet have a network of battery swap stations yet). When electricity is cheap, you buy it (or the robot you programmed does) and store it in your batteries. That’s good but there’s more.

Obviously, if the price of electricity gets high temporarily you can NOT buy and either not travel or use the gasoline that your hybrid also burns. But there’s more.

If the price of electricity spikes – could happen during the day when you’re home sick – you COULD sell the electricity in your battery back to the grid. But there’s still more.

If there’s a real spike, your PHEV could be instructed by the bot to turn on its engine and start generating electricity for sale.

But wait, you say, that’s not very green. But it is.

The more backup there is, the more feasible wind and solar are as a primary source. The more use you can get out of the capital you put into a PHEV, the more likely you are to buy it. The more local energy shortfalls can be met locally, the more efficient the grid is both in energy lost in transmission and use of transmission capacity. And the less capital that has to go into building backup and peak capacity in the grid, the more investment can go into building a greener baseline. By burning a little gasoline from time to time, you avoid burning a lot all the time which is what we’re doing now.

BTW, Shai claims that just the wind energy which Denmark sells to its neighbors is enough energy to power ALL Danish cars.

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