Solutions are a System of Systems

wind turbine electric carGiven our propensity for streamlining information paired with our dangerous addiction to hype, we have a tendency to pull things out of context to weigh them each as isolated ideas. This is just as true with sustainability as it is with everything else. Merits and shortcomings are all too often examined on one specific gadget, product or system, but everything (especially sustainability) is really a system of systems. More often than not, the real opportunities for progress come with linking individual solutions together. A great example is renewable energy and electric cars.

Electric cars and renewable energy have a few things in common. They both define the leading edge of the innovation curve in their industry. They both represent opportunities for increased energy efficiency within American culture. They also bring prospects for a cleaner alternative resulting in a reduction in our carbon footprint. However, both have had a slow expansion in the marketplace that has shied below estimates for how quickly we would migrate to newer, cleaner, cultural norms. Both of these technologies currently rely on government subsidies in order to make them financially attractive. But it is possible that another similarity is that both of these technologies could add considerable value not only to a home, but the utility grid at large when used in conjunction with one another.

Electric Car + Small Scale Renewable

At the consumer scale, we are still in the process of becoming acclimated to the idea of electric (or plug-in hybrid-electric) vehicles and onsite renewable energy production. Though adoption remains a slow process, we could be approaching a point where our infrastructure could yield a opportunity for synergy in having both systems installed together at the residential scale. Given the right conditions, both of these technologies can help add to the core asset value of a property in how they can respond to the electric grid, essentially becoming one of many small, but highly agile, pieces of a larger system.

Electric Cars Plus Renewable Energy

By now, most of us know that on-site renewables have the capacity to lower energy bills and even potentially generate revenue by selling surplus power back to the grid. The problem is that from the perspective of the grid, distributed renewable energy can be more problems than it is worth. The intermittent nature of solar and wind can make the flow of power to the grid erratic, making it necessary to run fossil fuel plants in reserve to regulate the supply of power to the grid at large. This is only compounded by having many small power sources spread out over individual homes. Without a way to store and moderate the energy flow from on-site renewables, their addition can remain cumbersome for utilities, which keeps the price for power low (without government assistance anyway).

This is why electric cars hold so much potential. Aside from the list of standard reasons that EVs can make sense for drivers, they also can become a new component of a next-gen electric grid that utilizes power storage and demand response. The EV parked in your garage can be a quiet, efficient, zero-emission transportation device, but it’s also a big battery on wheels that can be tied to power harvested from the wind or the sun. At night, a smarter grid can tap into all of the electric cars plugged in across the country and use them to store excess power for the following day. Even if only 5% of each car battery was used for demand response, with enough electric cars it could be megawatts of capacity to pull from that could keep dirty power plants from coming online.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had a little over 250 million registered vehicles in the country in 2010. Assuming that EV or PHEV numbers reached 10% market penetration (which is admittedly a big step from the >1% they have now) then that would be 25 million cars. If we use the Tesla Model S as an example with its 60 kwh battery, that would be committing 3 kwh per car, translating to 75 million kwh, or 75 gigawatt hours of power storage. That is over three times the entire 22 gigawatts of pumped water storage we currently have in the United States. It could also offset eight 500 MW coal plants running at 75% capacity 24 hours a day.

Raising Home Value

The value-added to these paired technologies could go even deeper. When it comes to assessing the value of a house and creating a mortgage, banks are mainly interested in two things: can this person pay our money back and if they don’t, how much is it worth to us? These two technologies could help with both of these questions. Each system can eventually help lower electric bills: renewables by augmenting usage or selling power to the grid and electric cars by being paid to provide power storage capacity to utility companies. In the event of a foreclosure, these things can make money for banks as well.

Instead of having an empty house waiting for sale that only costs a bank money it could be a money generator. Turning everything off in the house would direct all onsite renewable power to the grid for sale. If the bank parked on of a fleet of electric cars in the garage and hooked it up, the entire car battery could link to the renewable system and be devoted to power storage for the grid—for a price, of course.

The feasibility of achieving this synergy also requires yet another system: smart meters. While these systems need some specific grid communication it could be something that continues towards the new normal for construction methods. Together, EVs + PVs + smart meters can produce more net benefit than the sum of the individual components used alone. This is a perspective that we have to utilize more often. Treating things as isolated occurrences will render smaller, isolated benefits. Viewing the interconnected nature of all that we do can give us a more progressive system of systems.

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