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Google revs up smart charging for plug-ins

As part of its work with plug-in electric vehicles, Google is testing software designed to let cars recharge without stressing the grid.

WASHINGTON D.C.--Google is developing "smart charging" software to ensure that plug-in electric vehicles don't cause traffic jams on the power grid.

The search giant is researching a number of energy-related technologies, including car charging software, where IT and "ET," or energy technology, meet, said Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google.org.

One of its projects, still in the experimental phase, is writing software to better manage when plug-in electric cars are charged, Reicher said at the Kema Utility of the Future conference here Thursday.

RechargeIT car
Google co-founders Sergey Brin (left) and Larry Page plug in a RechargeIT car in 2007. Google

There is some concern that millions of plug-in electric vehicles charging at the peak times, such as around 5:30 p.m. when people return from work, could cause power disruptions or require construction of new power plants.

To address this, Google has written software with "vehicle dispatch algorithms" that can decide how to best charge cars, Reicher said. In addition to smoothing out the load on the grid, smart charging makes it easier to take advantage of solar and wind power, which are variable sources of electricity.

The software is also designed to simplify matters for grid operators. To maintain a steady frequency on transmission wires, utilities typically call on power generators to increase or decrease the flow of electricity to match the demand, Reicher explained after his talk.

With Google's smart-charging software, the plug-in electric vehicles could effectively fill that "grid regulation" role, Reicher said.

"You can tell the power generators to power up or you can tell 250 cars to stop charging. It's exactly the same difference," he said. "It could be that the car charges for two minutes and then goes off--whatever is most effective."

Google now operates a fleet of plug-in hybrid cars--converted Toyota Priuses and Ford Escapes--at its corporate headquarters, where it gathers data on their mileage performance.

Like other companies, it has looked into vehicle-to-grid technology through which electric vehicles' batteries would feed stored electricity to utilities during peak times. That technology remains experimental.

By contrast, Reicher said, smart charging is a simple, one-way grid-to-car connection, rather than a two-way communication link between the car and grid. And smart-charging software can be implemented in the near and medium term, he said.

"This is just good software meets good hardware. This doesn't have to be rocket science, and we can do it without having to put the grid at risk or change a lot of things," he said.

One of the people taking part in the project is renewable-energy engineer Alec Brooks, who worked on Tesla Motors' grid-to-vehicle strategy before joining Google about a year ago.

Energy R&D at Google
Smart charging is seen as an important conduit to widespread use of plug-in electric vehicles. Although there aren't yet large numbers of mass-produced plug-in electric cars, the auto industry is expecting to start releasing mainstream electric vehicles in the next year.

Other companies are already working on smart-charging tools. Smart-grid company GridPoint last year acquired V2Green and tested its grid-to-vehicle software with General Motors' Chevy Volt. The software can speed up or slow down car battery charge times and provide information to utilities to help manage fluctuations in load.

solar carports
Solar panels on carport roofs at Google's headquarters. Google

For its part, GM said it expects to have smart charging available with the Chevy Volt when that car is released in late 2010. In conjunction with GM's online OnStar service, the smart charging is designed to allow consumers to take advantage of the best electricity rates, executives said.

In his talk, Reicher said that Google engineers are working on a number of other energy-related research and development projects in an effort to make renewable energy less expensive.

One project involves working on heliostats, the mirrors used to concentrate light on solar thermal systems. Google engineers are working on control systems--heliostats need to follow the light during the course of the day--and on making heliostats less expensive to manufacture.

Google has invested $45 million in outside companies, including start-ups in concentrating solar power, capturing energy from high-altitude wind, and enhanced geothermal systems.

Reicher added that Google is planning to announce deals with European utilities around its PowerMeter home energy-monitoring software.

By getting information from a smart meter or another device, PowerMeter can display a home's energy usage in real time and provide details on how much big appliances consume, which should allow people to find ways to reduce electricity usage.

Last month, Google said that eight utilities in the U.S. and Canada are using PowerMeter with their smart-grid trials. PowerMeter is a Google gadget that can be embedded into a Web page.