Looking toward a proliferation of plug-in cars on the horizon, utility company researchers and General Motors have been collaborating on a broad-based, three-year project begun last year intended to facilitate next-generation smart charging capabilities.

How smart?

Smart enough that one day soon, it may be possible to sell the power in your electric car back to your local utility company. Or, during an electrical black-out, it may be possible to channel current from your plugged-in car into your home system as though it were a backup generator.

These are a couple of the more Jetson-age applications being researched, but not nearly all of the potential that has already begun to come forth.

Recently rolled-out GM OnStar telemetric applications for smart phones you may have heard about were directly spun off from the ongoing research, as GM is not waiting to act on usable data if it doesn't have to.

Shown here being recharged by a solar-powered charger, many more innovations are in store for smart charging the Chevrolet Volt. (Photo courtesy of GM.)

Yesterday, we had opportunity to talk to the man in charge of it all, Sunil Chhaya. As a senior project manager for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) , he is overseeing the three-year, $6 million project researching ways for “smart grids” to more intelligently interact with the Chevrolet Volt.

About 50-60 researchers are involved in the international collaboration, including about 10-12 from GM, five or six from EPRI, and many more from cooperating subcontractors, Chhaya said.

“EPRI [pronounced: "epree"] created a collaborative of about 50-plus utilities, across the U.S., Canada, some from Europe, as well, to talk about what are the issues that will influence the decisions on the car side,” Chhaya said, “and what are the issues that we need to be aware of on the smart grid side. Now the fortuitous circumstance here is utilities are also in the middle of doing large scale smart grid deployment, which means there are smart meters being deployed in large numbers.”

Smart grid roll out and pilot projects are being conducted in many regions. Chhaya said utility companies across the U.S. are doing things in a variety of ways, coming at technical challenges from many angles.

Generally, smart grids attempt to control electrical energy flow at a more granular level by digitally monitoring usage and distribution from the user side, and the utility side.

The GM/EPRI smart grid project began in January 2010, and will run through December 2012, Chhaya said.

It is collecting data from a pool of Volt test vehicles, and being paid for by matching funds from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in conjunction with money from participating utility company members of EPRI.

As a non-profit research organization, EPRI's members comprise 90 percent of all U.S. electricity providers, and it has additional participation from 40 countries.

The Volt already has a sophisticated battery management system. GM is working on upping the wow factor in conjunction with smart grid capabilities.

The idea for the GM study first gained momentum in 2007, Chhaya said, when EPRI and automakers were discussing standardization for charging equipment. Those talks led to the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) J1772 conductive-style 5-pin plug used by the Volt and other plug-in cars.

During those meetings, he said, more brainstorming ensued, and up percolated a recognized need for power companies to get more deeply involved, with cross-flow of data back and forth

“Utilities felt that there was a need for them to communicate with the vehicles in a way that’s never been done before,” Chhaya said, “Your plug doesn’t talk to your toaster you know, or vice versa, you know. You don’t have any need for it … “

Until now, he said, with reference to plug-in cars.

Part of the work with GM, and a similar project begun in 2008 with Ford – which is using plug-in-converted Escape Hybrids – is to incorporate standards for its innovations within the emerging electric auto industry.

“The technology that we are developing is something that is production capable so that it could go into any of the future products,” Chhaya said, “It’s also standards based, so we won’t be creating anything special for any purposes.”

In other words, they are trying to avoid different competing standards, thus the SAE is involved, has developed more standards for data transference and more, and automakers are cooperating.

While many gee-wiz ancillary benefits could be spun off from the discoveries GM and EPRI make, Chhaya said the project’s highest priority is to make sure widespread plug-in car rollout does not crash the grid.

According to Plug In America's Legislative Director, Jay Friedland, U.S. electric company capacity during overnight hours is enough to power somewhere around 140 million electric vehicles.

During the daytime it is far less.

Acknowledging this statistic, Chhaya said one aspect of the GM/EPRI project is to foresee all possible ramifications from hundreds of thousands, to potentially a million or more plug-in cars that could conceivably plug in day or night.

The Volt's battery may soon talk to the utility companies. One day, it may be able to give 4-5 hours of back-up power to a house during a power outage, or feed utilities power gained during peak hours at a profit during off-peak hours, if this is deemed a good idea.

One goal, he said, is to enhance interactivity between cars and home energy management systems, as well as to facilitate public connectivity.

An EV charger can take about 3 to 3.3 kilowatts, at a 12-amp load at 240 volts – about the energy requirement of an electric clothes dryer.

It is foreseen that a smart home system would allow communication between the grid, and all appliances – which an electric car would be considered from an energy budget standpoint.

Revised varying rate packages may be devised in the not-too-distant future, and the car may be the one to tell the driver what is what.

Through on-board intelligence, an electric car may inform the driver when is a good time to charge. While charging, it may recognize a sudden surge in the grid, and know to shut off, then know when to turn on later when demand decreases. Or, more likely, it may just be set to charge at certain hours overnight.

Electric car owners may be able to purchase an incentivized package for such intelligent recharging.

Chhaya said the price structure would be set up to encourage more logical energy usage based on a network-monitored grid that knows where available power is, and when.

If users wanted to charge in the daytime, they could, but they would pay accordingly.

“For example, say, you know, you can charge anytime you want but there’s a charge for doing that [during high demand hours], but because it costs us more to produce electricity, we will pass that on to you in some form,” Chhaya said speaking on behalf of a hypothetical utility company, “Or if you charge over night when there’s extra wind, we’ll make it real inexpensive.”

It is not unlike a carrot and stick scenario, but seen as necessary due to limits on local electrical grid systems.

The concepts promise manifold benefits for all involved, but the goal is to make future purchasable energy consumption programs as user-friendly as possible.

“What we are trying to do with GM is to create a direct path with the smart meters; between the smart meters and the car based on the standards,” Chhaya said, “The idea, you know, is in general, is these communications should be in silent mode. They should not be repeatedly requiring constant intervention because people will get bored, forget, do the wrong things, misinterpret. So, you basically set it and forget it. Once you sign up for the program, the car takes care of all your charging needs according to what ever incentive that you signed up for, and it’s all just automatic.”

Yesterday EPRI sent us the link to this video it put together to demonstrate a smart grid.

The system would make the driver the center of the decision process, and manual over-ride would be possible, Chhaya said.

At present, Chhaya said, electric cars are still rather elementary electricity receivers. Their charging systems take energy until their batteries are full, then they monitor the battery.

“We would call that passive or dumb charging. You plug it in. It’s by no means dumb, the car has a lot of logic that decides, that controls this process. But from the utilities’ standpoint it’s fairly passive,” Chhaya said, “It was felt that in the long term that was not a good idea.”

Already, data gathered from congregated EVs have shown weak points in local grids, and utilities are in process of updating local systems.

Several links in at the electrical transference chain exist from the plant including substations and local transformers, Chhaya said.

Transformers can “die a natural death” in maybe 20-30 years anyway, but if several electric cars were plugged in all at once in one neighborhood, they could overheat the local transformer and cause its early demise.

In essence, utility companies are trying not to be caught unaware, and researching to anticipate all eventualities.

One big picture view of all this is that if electric companies can accommodate EV rollouts, they will facilitate the proposed paradigm shift being worked for by alternative energy advocates.

Naturally, utilities also have plenty to gain in selling unused output, and eventually becoming able to handle more consumers both day and night. In the process, they stand to shift the balance of transportation energy profits away from oil companies one car at a time.

For the GM/EPRI smart grid project, individual utilities were offered a buy-in for access to three hierarchical levels of gathered data.

Data and interaction with the three year project was offered at $60,000 for level one, $270,000 for level two, or $390,000 for level three.

Apart from some salaried personnel being involved, GM’s financial input has been virtually nil, except for one detail, Chhaya said.

“What GM is contributing, of course is the Volt. The development of the Volt vehicle itself, you know that is roughly a billion-dollar investment that has gone into making the car,” Chhaya said, “I mean without the car, this would be kind of a moot point. We would just be sitting, staring at a computer screen.”