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Electric cars may hold solution for power storage

In a Delaware pilot project, electricity is stored in and retrieved from the batteries of idle vehicles. Car owners would be paid.

A row of Mini Coopers acts as a sort of power plant, drawing energy during off-peak times and delivering it back to the grid when it’s needed most in a pilot project at the University of Delaware. (Evan Krape, Evan Krape / December 23, 2013)

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By Evan Halper

December 29, 2013, 5:00 a.m.

NEWARK, Del. — The thick blue cables and white boxes alongside an industrial garage here look like those in any electric-car charging station. But they work in a way that could upend the relationship Americans have with energy.

The retrofitted Mini Coopers and other vehicles plugged into sockets where a Chrysler plant once stood do more than suck energy out of the multi-state electricity grid. They also send power back into it.

With every zap of juice into or out of the region’s fragile power network, the car owner gets paid.

The pilot project here at the University of Delaware has had enough success to set off a frenzy of activity in the auto and electricity industries, particularly in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation plan this year promoted “vehicle-to-grid” technology.

Entrepreneurs and government agencies see the technology as a possible solution to a vexing dilemma: how to affordably store renewable energy so it can be available when it is needed, not only when the wind blows or the sun shines.

“This is a fascinating option,” said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission. “The technology works. You can do this. The question is … what do we need to do to make it happen?”

California has the nation’s most aggressive goals for renewable power and also wants to put 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road over the next decade. State officials say vehicle-to-grid technology could point toward a way to accomplish both goals faster, for less money.

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