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Will plug-in hybrids crash the grid? Duke Energy says no

A test with smart grid start-up GridPoint finds that "smart charging" of plug-in cars after 10 p.m. is crucial to not stressing the grid. GridPoint also raises $15 million.

Duke Energy and smart grid company GridPoint said on Thursday that they have found a way for people to charge plug-in hybrid cars in a way that won't bring the power grid to its knees.

The companies said that they have completed a test using GridPoint's SmartGrid Platform device to charge up cars after 10 p.m.

The timing of when during the day plug-in hybrid cars are charged is crucial.

One of many plug-ins, Chevy's Volt due in 2010. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Oak Bridge National Laboratories earlier this month released a study that found that timing is everything when it comes to plug-in hybrids.

In the worst-case scenario, the United States would need to build 160 new power plants to accommodate plug-in hybrids. That's if people charge their cars at 5 p.m., at the tail end of the daily peak power demand on electricity grid.

But if cars were charged starting after 10 p.m. using smart grid technologies to stagger the timing, the U.S. would need between zero and eight new power plants, according to the study's author, Stan Hadley.

Duke Energy engineers did exactly that. Using GridPoint's technology, they started to charge plug-in hybrids at 10 p.m., rather than the moment car owners plugged them in.

"Smart charging is an essential capability for Duke and all electric utilities as PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) enter the market. Through this capability, we're able to reduce stress on the grid during peak periods and keep rates low," said David Mohler, chief technology officer of Duke Energy, in a statement. Mohler joined the board of GridPoint last October.

In a previous interview with CNET, GridPoint's Chief Operating Officer Karl Lewis said that U.S. utilities are not at all prepared for the stress that the anticipated growth of plug-in hybrids will put on the grid.

"If suddenly you have 20,000 or 30,000 rechargeable cars--with maybe 50,000 in a few years--plugging into the grid at night, utilities have to react to that or you'll have serious problems," Lewis said in an October interview. "You see plug-in hybrids becoming a big issue; it's a tidal wave coming at utilities."

Separately, GridPoint announced on Thursday that it has raised $15 million from Quercus Trust and has expanded its board with prominent people, including Robert Danziger; Paul Feldman, chairman of the Midwest ISO; T.J. Glauthier, former deputy secretary of energy; R. James Woolsey, former CIA director; and Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERA.

To date, GridPoint has raised $102 million.