Imagine being able to take an instant-by-instant look at your energy usage, set a monthly energy budget and get an alert when you get close to that figure, remotely shut off appliances like air conditioners during times of peak energy demand, or sell the excess energy generated by your solar panels or wind turbine back to the power company. And if you plan to purchase a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to avoid the pain at the pump, you could use the car’s battery pack to deliver power back to the grid when demand is high or to run your house in the event of a blackout. These were among the selling points that got residents of Boulder, Colo., enthused about their city becoming the test bed for the coordinated introduction of a group of technologies that will make Boulder the first city in the United States to be powered by a so-called smart grid when the two-year project is completed in December 2009.

The effort is the brainchild of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, an energy utility whose service territory covers eight midwestern U.S. states. What’s in it for Xcel? In the wake of the 2003 blackout that left a large swath of the United States and Canada in the dark, there was a renewed call for improvement in the outdated, poorly configured patchwork that is the U.S. power grid. Electric utilities and power pools have been under pressure to improve the networks’ infrastructure, including long-distance transmission lines and the control systems at substations. Advances in the form of new materials for cables, sensors and software designed to detect and even predict faults, and the ability to incorporate inputs from residential solar and wind generation are gradually being installed.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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