Photo by D.L. Anderson
Anne Tazewell of the N.C. Solar Center drives a neighborhood-rated electric vehicle around the N.C. State campus.
You've watched in horror as a blown BP well fills the Gulf of Mexico with despair. Dick Dell is horrified, too. But it's only the latest disgrace our nation's suffered, Dell says, because of our national addiction to oil.
Anne Tazewell wonders why President Obama isn't on his soapbox calling for higher taxes on gasoline to fund a crash program of developing replacement fuels. Ewan Pritchard just shakes his head thinking what could be done in the labs if they were given more resources.
These three leaders in a Raleigh-centered alternative fuels network must look like a rebel base to Big Oil—and they do indeed have a coup in mind. Each one heads a small but important regiment in the battle to break oil's grip on American travel using an old technology made new.
It's electric batteries—just the way old Thomas Alva Edison drew it up. Except that these batteries are to Edison's as the cell phone is to Alexander Graham Bell's invention.
The first automobiles ran on batteries. But when the modern gas-fueled internal combustion engine debuted in the 20th century, even Edison understood that petroleum trumped electricity when it came to powering a car that wasn't attached to a wire.
A century later, though, that advantage is poised to flip. Breakthroughs in battery and related technologies began about four years ago. They continue at a rapid clip, and nowhere faster than in a research center on NCSU's Centennial Campus, aptly named the FREEDOM Systems Center. (It stands for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems.) It's Pritchard's home base and a key part of the Raleigh network.
It won't be long, these experts say, before the power of car batteries will catch up to gasoline's—and electric power is already a good deal cheaper. When it happens, it will usher in a new era for American transportation—and in our way of life.
Picture more people in center cities, less suburban sprawl. Picture a lot of small, quiet, emission-free electric vehicles, especially in downtowns. Picture electric-powered streetcars. They're coming, with enormous savings for the American economy.
Further, electric batteries are two-way devices, able to draw power from the electric grid and store it, and also to discharge stored power to a vehicle or back to the grid. Thus a new generation of electric-powered vehicles could—when combined with the coming smart-grid technologies—transform the electric-utilities industry as well.
Indeed, as profound as the changes in transportation would be, the changes in electric generation could be even more significant: Centralized power plants may give way over time to a decentralized system of power generation, with power coming from rooftop solar panels, backyard wind turbines, and yes, battery power from literally millions of idle vehicles. In effect, every plant, office building and household would be its own two-way substation.
It won't happen overnight, obviously. And the extent to which such a far-flung system of small generators can replace large nuclear and coal-powered plants is much debated. But the electric utilities, including Progress Energy and Duke Energy, have moved from a posture of slow-walking the change to one of promising to lead it over the next 10–15 years. Critics question whether the utilities are really prepared to share control and cede power to the masses. Like the phone company before them, however, their choice may be limited to accepting the new technologies or clinging to their old ones as they become obsolete.
Up the road comes Tazewell, transportation program manager at the North Carolina Solar Center, part of N.C. State University's College of Engineering. She's driving a GEM, one of the small, so-called neighborhood-electric vehicles that uses no gasoline yet can travel at 25 miles per hour. With zero tailpipe emissions, it's so quiet and perfect for zipping around the campus, which Tazewell loves. "You recharge it at night," she says, smiling brightly. "Just plug it in to an outlet."
Battery-powered vehicles aren't the only way to attack oil, Tazewell adds. Biofuels and natural gas will also play a part. But long-term, she's convinced that the biggest weapons in the alt-fuels arsenal will be electric.
A mile away on Centennial Campus, Pritchard is on a mission as he takes the wheel of a Toyota Prius hybrid to which a plug-in lithium-ion battery pack has been added. The converted Prius can go 100 miles or more on a gallon of gasoline.
Pritchard, a mechanical engineer and the director of industry and innovation at N.C. State's Advanced Transportation Energy Center (ATEC), part of the FREEDOM Systems Center, is on his way to a lab where even more powerful and efficient lithium-ion batteries are in development. These batteries use nanofibers that, under a high-powered microscope, make a human hair look gigantic in comparison.
Later, seeing the new fibers spun and tested, Pritchard loosens up with a warning for Big Oil. "It's pretty revolutionary," he says. "I think the 2015–2020 time frame will be a time of dramatic change."
By 2020, electric-powered vehicles can overtake the gas-guzzlers?
"I think," he answers, nodding. Though as a scientist, he must add a disclaimer. "Unless something happens."
Arriving on the NCSU campus from his office in North Raleigh, Dell drives a twin of the Prius plug-in that Pritchard was driving. That's not surprising, since Dell's company sells the lithium-ion battery packs—he became a certified installer with ATEC's help—and put one in the ATEC car.
All six of Progress Energy's plug-in hybrids and the seven owned by Raleigh's Public Utilities division were also Dell's work.
It's a small world in the Triangle when it comes to the early adopters of the electric-vehicle vision, Tazewell observes. "So we all know each other."
Dell's company, the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, is based in Raleigh with an eight-person shop located in Danville, Va. The nine-year old center is a for-profit company with a nonprofit research and education arm, he says, though, moneywise, it was hard to tell the difference until the second quarter of this year, when the for-profit finished in the black for the first time.
An electrical engineer, Dell worked for the Air Force (Vietnam, Cape Canaveral) and for IBM until 2001, when he started his company. IBM wanted him to relocate out of Raleigh, he says. He wanted to stay. Also, he was convinced that "peak oil" was upon us—the point at which, as forecast in the '50s by a now-famous oil geologist named M. King Hubbert, the world's demand for oil would outstrip the ability to develop new supplies.
"When gasoline hit $1 a gallon in 2001," Dell says, "I thought the coming oil crisis that we'd been talking about for 30 years was on us."
Sure enough, he continues, the world's known reserves of oil have fallen ever since, forcing oil companies to drill—and spill—in ever-deeper and more dangerous offshore waters. The Gulf spill isn't unique or rare, he says. Such spills are common. We just don't hear about them, because two-thirds of our oil is imported. (In another recent oil-related disaster, an oil tanker exploded in Congo, killing hundreds of people.)
Meanwhile, the price of oil has skyrocketed. From the $10–$30-a-barrel range of a decade ago, oil now sells for $75 a barrel and reached $150 at the height of the price spike of 2008, when gasoline jumped over $4 a gallon.
Dell is easygoing, but he shows his irritation as he traces the origins of the current Great Recession not to mortgages or derivatives but to the oil-price spike of '08. At that point, the U.S. bill for imported petroleum was about $2 billion a day. Now, with the recession, it's about $1 billion a day—which is still, Dell says, a disaster for the country and the world.
"We're sending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to people who hate us," he says. "We can't keep doing that."
Dell's doing his part, but so far that part is small. His company is responsible for 120 plug-in battery conversions, all on Prius models or the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. The former uses a 5-kilowatt hour battery pack; the latter, a 13.3-kwh pack. Both are manufactured by Hymotion, a Massachusetts-based company. Dell's shop is working on a different pack for Ford F-150 truck models.
On the other hand, the Hymotion battery is the biggest seller in the country, Dell says, and he's one of just 12 distributors.
The scarcity of distributors indicates how far this technology has to go, he adds. He has 120 hybrid-to-plug-in conversions on the road, compared with 300 million gas-powered cars and trucks.
Three problems confront the battery packs, Dell says. One is the high price, plus the fact that while the federal government has offered incentives of up to $7,500 to buyers of new hybrid models, so far there are no incentives for plug-in conversions.
A second is "range anxiety." The average driver goes 24 miles in a day, Dell says. Still, drivers worry that the 35-mile range of a converted Prius won't be enough, and they'll end up running on gasoline—and not getting that 100-mpg thrill—a lot of the time.
Very few public charging stations exist in the Triangle, but this fall, some 200 more are coming, most of them paid for by the electric utilities and municipal governments spending federal stimulus grants. Dell's company is a distributor for one model, Coulomb Technologies' Smartlet Charging Station. A one-outlet station costs $5,000, Dell says. A new two-outlet station is due out soon and will cost the same. The stations look like a gas pump.
But the biggest boost for plug-ins, Dell says, would be a boost in their power, relative to their size and cost, allowing a car-sized battery to go hundreds of miles, not dozens. If a plug-in car could go 200 miles between charges, and you could charge it at home overnight—and "top it off" while you're working at your company's charging station—it wouldn't need a gasoline engine at all.
For that kind of boost, the FREEDOM Systems Center, and ATEC, is the place to look.
Density, Ewan Pritchard explains, is the key factor in battery power. Compared with a tank of gasoline, which packs a lot of punch into a relatively small container, the standard lead-acid battery is a wimp, and the nickel-metal hydride battery—standard equipment in the Prius, for example—is only marginally stronger.
The challenge is to make a battery that's small enough to fit in a car but still supplies it with enough zip to go fast and enough energy to carry it for hundreds of miles. In that sense, lithium-ion batteries were a breakthrough compared to the nickel-metal hydride models, offering vast power potential that is as yet, however, only partially realized. But the labs in NCSU's FREEDOM center are on the job in multiple ways, aided by major funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, Toyota, General Motors, the utilities, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, among others.
Pritchard says N.C. State's newest batteries are testing at 4–10 times the density—and thus, the power—of the state-of-the-art batteries that Dick Dell markets and are in the ATEC car. That advance puts N.C. State labs at least even with the best in the country, he says, and probably at No. 1.
Research has dropped the cost of lithium-ion batteries by about half over the last four years. N.C. State's goal is to cut the cost by half again by 2014 while boosting density to the point that a battery the size of the one in the Prius would run for 200 miles on its own—for a cost of $5,000 or less.
In a lab that, interestingly, is part of NCSU's College of Textiles, Pritchard reveals one secret element of the density—and power—gains: nanofibers. The composition of the fibers, and the solutions used to prepare them, are closely held, and in fact, the lab is filled with containers of different solutions being tested on various fibers.
But the point, he says, is that enormous volumes of the tiny fibers can be baked and packed into a battery as conductors for electricity. Think of electricity running along the little threads instead of jumping across spaces between particles—the density is greater, and so is the power.
Is there any limit to the density that can be achieved? Pritchard pauses. Theoretically? No, he says.
Other NCSU labs are working on battery controller technology. Controllers "pulse" power from the battery to the engine. Another breakthrough technology developed on campus has improved their efficiency so that cooling—the radiator and water pump—may be unnecessary in electric vehicles.
Pritchard decided he wanted to work on electric cars as a teenager in Cary. He majored in mechanical engineering at NCSU, but by the time he graduated, EVs had taken a big hit in California. Despite the Golden State's efforts in the '90s to promote them as a "zero-emissions" technology, nobody wanted the low-power, low-range cars using then state-of-the-art NiMH batteries.
It wasn't until hybrids came along, solving the range problem at least, that the outlook for EVs brightened again. With lithium-ion, it's shining brightly.
By 2020, Pritchard predicts, batteries should be capable of 500-600 miles on a charge, and high-volume production should further drop the price. At that point, gasoline will be on the run, unable to sustain sales even at $2 a gallon when electric sells for the equivalent price of 75 cents.
"The future is inevitably electric," he says. "The source of the electricity is up for debate. There may even be some kind of power plant within the vehicle," which would mean no plug-in needed. "But it's a foregone conclusion, the thing turning the wheels is going to be some form of electricity in the future."
Which raises the question of the impact of EVs on the electric industry. Looked at one way, it's insignificant: A study by the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) determined that, even with 10 million electric vehicles on the road, the additional "load" on the grid—the extra electricity needed to run them—would be less than 1 percent.
From the standpoint of renewable energy, though, the impact could be huge. In another FREEDOM center lab, Pritchard unveils a prototype of a two-way charging system—V2G, for short, meaning vehicle-to-grid.
If installed in a charging station like the ones Dell is selling and the utilities are beginning roll out, the V2G technology would allow the utilities to take power from cars as well as supply it.
In his book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, calculates that 100 million cars—one-third of the U.S. fleet—equipped with 10-kwh batteries would have 100,000 megawatts of stored power, the equivalent of 100 large nuclear plants.
Makhijani is one of the scientists arguing that enough solar, wind and other renewable power sources can be captured in the United States to eliminate the need for coal plants and, eventually, nuclear plants.
Solar and wind are considered problematic by the utilities, though, due to their intermittency—the sun may not shine, the wind may not blow. A recent study by Dr. John Blackburn, an economist and former chancellor at Duke University, found that in North Carolina—his test case—the wind and sun are complementary sources: When the sun is down, the wind is up.
Combined, the two form a reasonably steady source of power, Blackburn argued, especially when backed up by a reliable standby power source, which car batteries could be.
Is that prospect a real one? "It is for real," Pritchard says. He points to yet another innovation in the FREEDOM center, "intelligent nodes" for a smart-grid system to replace the current transformer technology.
Such nodes could function like a stock exchange for the grid, smoothly managing the transfer of power from transmission lines to households and from households—with their solar roof panels and their idle car batteries—back to the lines.
One reason the utilities resist receiving power from many sources, Pritchard says, is their fear of millions of random power surges adding up to a big problem of "harmonic distortion" capable of crashing the system.
Intelligent nodes could eliminate such surges almost entirely, allowing a simple "plug-and-play" system in which any household could sell to the grid as easily as buying from it.
Right now, Pritchard says, the utilities are mainly interested in selling—that is, in charging cars, especially at night when surplus power is available from their plants. EVs charging overnight would make the electric system run more smoothly, which appeals to the utilities, he adds.
On the other hand, the utilities don't want people charging cars during the day, particularly on hot days when the air conditioners are running and the grid is stressed. That's when Progress and Duke could be interested in taking some power from parked cars via the V2G chargers—not all of it, but some fraction that the car's owner, probably using a smart phone, has told the smart grid she's willing to sell.
So let's say you own an EV with a 10-kwh battery. Its range is 200 miles. You drive it five miles to work. It's parked all day in your company's parking deck, plugged into a V2G charging system. If Progress Energy needs it, you've sent the message that you're willing to sell back half of your battery's stored power.
So have millions of other EV owners.
"Is the plug-in vehicle the 'killer app' for the smart grid?" Duke Energy's Mike Rowand, the utility's director of advanced customer technology, asked an audience at an NCSU-sponsored transportation and energy conference in May.
He didn't answer the question. But others did, and their answer was, of course.
Mike Waters, Progress Energy's advanced transportation manager, says his company is committed, as is Duke Energy, to helping electric vehicles come to the market. Both companies have growing fleets of EVs of their own, including the first bucket-truck models. Both are establishing several hundred charging stations, primarily in the Triangle and the Charlotte area.
And both see the advantages to the environment, to consumers and to their own operations, from vehicles that cost less to run, don't foul the air with their emissions, and—if charged during off-peak hours—help the utilities use their coal-fired and nuclear plants more efficiently.
"Clearly we support the technology, because it's a win for everybody," Waters says.
But Progress Energy also believes, he adds, that its grid technology "will be fine for a long, long time in terms of vehicle adoption" without any need to push to vehicle-to-grid systems, which some call Smart Grid 2.0. Nationwide, the basic system could cost $100 billion, but it could also cut electric transmission costs by that amount annually, says U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Car-battery storage as standby power is "interesting" and has great possibilities, Waters says, but it will be many years before enough EVs ARE on the road to justify the expense of a large-scale Smart Grid 2.0 installation.
"If you had enough vehicles out there, where it really became a large enough load source, then absolutely, I think that's an interesting idea to see that as a virtual peak power plant," he says.
For now, however, both utilities are content with basic grid improvements, which will help them to deliver more power on existing transmission lines or on smaller new ones but do little to help others transmit power to them.
Nor is the N.C. Utilities Commission pushing the utilities on smart-grid issues. The commission recently showed some interest in the subject by opening a smart-grid docket—a means of taking testimony. But the major initiative thus far, according to James McLawhorn, who heads the electric division of the commission's public staff, is to call on the utilities to make annual reports about their smart-grid progress.
Duke Energy and Progress Energy, says John Runkle, a utilities expert who is general counsel to NC WARN, "have dragged their feet for years" on the subject of net metering—which would require the utilities to pay as much for the electricity they buy (from solar, wind and other generators) as they charge for selling it.
The term refers to having electric meters run forward, as usual, when a customer is taking power from the grid, and backward when she's sending it. "It's not to their advantage to do net metering," Runkle says. "They like to sell energy. They're not anxious the other way."
That dynamic won't change, says Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, until state policies change to give the utility companies an incentive to welcome outside power. As it stands, any power the utilities buy cuts into their profits.
In 2011, the association expects to lobby the General Assembly for policies that require the utilities to accept more outside power and reward them for doing so. Solar and wind, and the companies that generate them, would be the main beneficiaries. But in the not too distant future, thousands of EV owners, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, may be calling their legislators saying, we'd like to sell some power, too.
And that might change everything.