Energy conservation: Charging cars for pennies …

By using wasted power, smart grids can charge electric cars for 42 cents a night.

There’s no doubt that electric cars are coming ? now we just have to figure out how to charge them. In Canada’s case, we may not have the necessary garage and parking lot plugs yet, but it turns out that we may already have all the energy we need. And here’s the best part: much of that power could be virtually free.

Canada currently draws on a huge mix of power sources, including hydro, coal, natural gas and nuclear. The answer to powering millions of electric cars at low cost lies in the fact that while power production is largely consistent, demand is not. In general, we use the most energy on weekday afternoons, during what is called on-peak times, and we must have sufficient power generation to service those times. During off-peak hours, such as at night and on weekends, energy use significantly drops, but the amount generated doesn’t. That’s because it’s not practical to power down nuclear power stations and massive hydroelectric dams at night. Water keeps flowing, coal keeps burning, nuclear reactors keep reacting, and much of that power goes to waste.

In Ontario, the difference between how much is in use and what’s available is often 10,000 megawatts — potentially enough power to support one million new electric vehicles. But we won’t have to worry about even that many for a while. The not-for-profit organization Electric Mobility Canada, which completed its EV Technology Roadmap for Canada this fall, forecasts that by 2018, there will be 500,000 plug-in electric vehicles in the whole nation. “We have no capacity problems to handle that amount,” says Al Cormier, Electric Mobility Canada’s executive director.

The fact that we’ll largely be charging our cars with wasted energy also means it could cost next to nothing for car owners — if we set up a billing system that makes sense. Right now, electricity is charged at a flat rate, since provinces don’t track energy consumption according to time of day. However, following Ontario’s recent introduction of smart meters and time-of-use energy pricing, electric-vehicle owners could pay as little as 42¢ a night for five hours of electricity to charge their cars. That comes out to $31 a month, which is less than what most people spend on a tank of gas. “We have the resources and the electricity,” says Cormier. “We should take advantage of this unique opportunity.” Ontario is on track to install smart meters in all homes and small businesses by 2010.

Still, smart meters aren’t really that smart. They’re simply meters with clocks. The ultimate goal, explains Don Tench, director of marketing and compliance for Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), is a “smart grid” that senses when there’s overcapacity in the system and automatically turns charging stations on and off. “The essence of a smart grid is it’s a two-way technology, where the grid receives feedback from EVs,” says Richard Gilbert, a Toronto-based consultant for transport and energy, who co-wrote the 2007 book Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.

Some very clever minds are already working on creating the technology. In September, Google reported it is developing software that could enable such two-way smartness, where the grid controls the infrastructure of plug-in stations for cars.

Gilbert says one downside of such a grid is that it might not guarantee your car has a full charge in the morning if there was little overcapacity in the system the preceding night. But there’s a solution for that too. It’s called the Smart Charger Controller, developed in the U.S. at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. With this system, owners simply program the device to charge at a specific time or price point.

All of this new technology will help in the years to come, but provinces such as Ontario are already good to go even without it. “You don’t need a smart grid to charge your EVs overnight,” says Gilbert. “Europe has had metered clocks for decades.” Indeed, in 2008, when the IESO launched Ontario’s Smart Grid Forum, they concluded the main problem was not power generation but the local distribution companies’ capacity to supply.

This is good news for Canada and great news for the environment. Some argue that when cars go electric it won’t help the earth, because we still have to burn coal to produce that power. But it looks like everything we need to build a smart grid — including the power — may already be here.