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Richland lab creates shoebox-size solution to electric car problem

RICHLAND — Electric cars account for fewer than 0.05 percent of passenger vehicles in the United States today, but Michael Kintner-Meyer envisions a future where plug-ins rule the roads.

The proliferation of electric cars will bring benefits — like lower tailpipe emissions — ­but could also create unique headaches, says Kintner-Mayer, who leads a project at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland to improve the vehicles and tackle the problems.

Now, he and his colleagues have crafted a solution to the scenario that gives power-grid operators nightmares: The prospect that millions of Americans will get home from work and plug in their cars at the same time.

“It would create havoc,” said Kintner-Meyer. “You could have the lights go out. You could have rolling brownouts.”

The way to avoid widespread overloads is to spread out the demand — which is what PNNL’s “grid-friendly” charger does. The device, which is about the size of a shoebox, monitors the status of the grid and adjusts accordingly, switching off when demand is high and switching on when power is plentiful.

Adaptive charging could lower car owners’ electricity bills by allowing them to draw power when rates are lowest. And if enough cars use the systems, they could also collectively provide a valuable service to the power grid by dampening swings in electrical generation from the growing number of wind farms and solar arrays.

Drivers could save up to $150 a year, the grid would be protected from crashing, and the overall power system would run more smoothly, Kintner-Meyer said.

California-based Aero Vironment Inc. licensed the technology from PNNL and is integrating it into beta versions of a charging station. Alec Brooks, the company’s chief technology officer for efficient energy systems, has been using one to charge his Nissan Leaf.

At PNNL, Kintner-Mayer runs the system on a 2009 Prius hybrid that he and his team converted to a plug-in.
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