Keep the EV Batteries, But Lose the Car

The concept of a high-density ecocity that caters to people and not cars actually necessitates large-scale renewable energy “power plants” such as large solar and wind farms.  These would require power to be transported from remote locations where solar and wind power are generated to urban homes in a central metropolis – via the smart grid.  The reason for this is that in such a high-density “ecocity,” there simply is not the rooftop space per capita to mount enough solar panels to meet everyone’s needs.  Thus, the idea of renewable power generated remotely and “piped in” via smart grid is pivotal to the functionality of such a city.  While it is true that transmission losses do occur when power is piped in, the heat energy that “bleeds” from the exterior walls of dwellings in wintertime is perhaps an even greater consideration.  Thus, the efficiency gains by many shared walls in city dwellings may trump the efficiency losses of transporting power from a solar or wind farm (via smart grid) to a household in the city.

According to the Houston Chron, the momentum for a smart grid that can handle solar and wind power has been building over the last year. Two Houston companies recently landed nearly $220 million in federal stimulus funds to bolster “smart grid” projects aimed at improving power system reliability and helping consumers use less electricity. Nearly 100 such projects nationwide will split $3.4 billion in grants from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.  Federal grants will be matched with industry funding for a total investment of more than $8 billion. The government estimates the projects will create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce overall power use.

The burgeoning solar industry is on the up as well.  According to Environmental Leader, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has announced it will buy 500 megawatts of solar power from Nextera and Abengoa Solar. This adds to other solar deals by PG&E recently, for a total of 830 MW, according to a press release.  In Florida, the DeSoto and Space Coast Next Generation Solar Energy Centers has been completed, and will provide 25 megawatts of solar, or enough to power about 3,000 homes.  It is said to be the largest in the U.S. to date, at 90,000 panels. The list of solar projects is long and optimism for this clean technology is high.

A new report recently cited by Environmental Leader indicates that many states across the U.S. could become more self-reliant by producing renewable energy within their borders.  According to a recently updated report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at least 30 U.S. states could satisfy 100% of their electricity needs from in-state renewable energy based on the assumption that there is sufficient distributed storage or distributed generation capable of generating on-demand, and at least 40 states could supply half their electricity with domestic renewable resources.  The key implication in the report, however, is that electric car batteries will serve to store the generated electricity until it is needed.

The current vision for the smart grid seems to assume reliance on electric car batteries to store electricity. Thus, the mainstream smart grid idea does not yet align with the ideals of an ecocity that is truly sustainable.  The truth is batteries do not require a 3,000-pound mobile vehicle to do the work of storing electricity.  While electric vehicles (EV’s) may be seen as a free energy storage tool (an “anyway expense”), this alone is not a good reason to continue pursuing car-centric cities.   Such cities offer air pollution, urban sprawl, urban runoff, farmland and habitat destruction, sedentary lifestyles that propagate obesity, and myriad other problems that can be abated when cities are designed for people instead of cars.

Research and development for EV’s may be bringing us the tools we need to create a mode of storage for our solar and wind-derived power.  This is a handy tool for the coming smart grid, but let’s leave the cars behind.

Stacey Meinzen


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