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'Smart' electric grids to ease zap from plug-ins?

Department of Energy-funded project is testing fast chargers and "smart" electrical grids for controlling a potential strain on resources from plug-in hybrid vehicles.

A project funded by the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory will test bidirectional battery chargers and "smart" grids that could prevent U.S. electric grid overload from plug-in vehicles.

Ecotality is best known for the Hydratus, its onboard hydrogen fuel generator for buses, that grew out of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory project. Its subsidiary, eTec, makes chargers for rechargeable lithium ion and lead acid batteries used in electric light-construction vehicles.

Through this project, eTec will test battery-charging technology that could eventually be used to mitigate the anticipated strain on the U.S. electric grid from plug-in hybrid cars, the company announced Tuesday.

A company called V2Green has developed a "smart" electric grid that allows charging stations to control the flow of electricity between plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) batteries and an electric grid. Working with V2Green and its system, eTec plans to test the strain that bidirectional fast charging might have on the life of PHEV batteries.

The goal is to develop a system that would essentially allow plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, in conjunction with battery-charging stations, to store energy at charging stations so they could recharge in 10 minutes at any time, taking from the electric grid during off-peak hours and giving electricity to the grid during peak hours.

"Not only does this project demonstrate the ability to fast-charge a PHEV in 10 minutes, but it also highlights the additional benefit of fast-charging systems for managing facility energy consumption," Don Karner, the president and CEO of eTec, said in a statement.

Keep in mind, eTec does not manufacture the type of electric car battery you would find in a plug-in hybrid car like a Toyota Prius, but rather for those found in slower, lightweight off-road electric vehicles. Still, the project, if successful, could provide an immediate application for construction and utility companies that already rely on fleets of light PHEVs.

Karner said the data gathered on bidirectional fast-charging for recharging facilities, as well as on electric utilities, could lay "the foundation for the development of a public fast-charging infrastructure for on-road electric vehicles."

Several studies on this topic are under way, as delivery dates of plug-in hybrids for Main Street USA, promised by automakers such as Toyota, Ford Motor, and General Motors, loom closer.

While the U.S. Department of Energy has said it's confident it can handle a plethora of plug-ins, many still wonder what kind of strain will be put on the U.S. power infrastructure once consumers tap into it as a fuel source to recharge cars.

Even the confident Department of Energy announced in mid-June that it's giving $30 million to several car companies and research institutes to further develop hybrid plug-in car technology. Some of that funding is earmarked specifically for research on battery packs and charging systems.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), with sponsorship from General Motors and others, has also announced that it has a grant to study what effects a multitude of PHEVs being charged during peak electricity hours might have on Michigan's state electric grid.

The city of San Jose, Calif., announced on Tuesday that it will begin testing electric car charging stations developed by start-up Coulomb Technologies.