Driving the Future
Driving the Future
Driving the Future
2 minute read

The next generation of automobiles will include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that will require smart grid technology to support. New battery storage technology will help the grid support this power load at peak hours.

As early as 2012, the next generation of automobiles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), are expected to be available to the public. Some models will be ready to travel up to 40 miles on stored electric power. This means the 78 percent of commuters who travel 20 miles or less to work every day — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics — won’t have to burn a drop of gasoline or emit greenhouse gases on their daily commutes.

Vehicle manufacturers, including, Ford, Nissan and General Motors, have been actively researching and developing PHEVs, sparked by the Advanced Energy Initiative announced by President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. Even the city of Seattle joined the research and development effort by converting 13 Toyota Priuses into PHEVs —with funding and technical support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory — for a yearlong demonstration project testing PHEVs in real-world situations.

“The Smart Grid will be a significant tool in enabling the growing deployment of PHEVs,” says Kiah Harris, Burns & McDonnell principal in the Business & Technology Services Group. “PHEVs will bring up challenges with circuit loading, charge control, vehicle tracking for metering and billing purposes, and other related issues. In order to overcome these challenges, the Smart Grid will need to be developed down to the consumer level.”

How It Works

PHEVs combine the advantages of a pure electric vehicle with the flexible fuel option of a hybrid electric vehicle. A major difference between today’s hybrid electric vehicle and a PHEV is the rechargeable lithium ion battery that can be plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet.

Through its battery, a PHEV offers the energy storage component that conventional and renewable energy resources lack. This could be a key to the distributed generation element of the Smart Grid.

In the future, if electric utility customers embrace time-of-use rates and charge their vehicles during off-peak hours, PHEVs could help control peak electricity demand. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Heavy use of PHEVs during peak hours could significantly impact system loads. By charging during off-peak hours, PHEV batteries would be storing energy generated from coal, nuclear power or excess renewable energy from solar panels or wind turbines. An electric utility could use that stored energy from batteries of a parking lot full of PHEVs to offset a nearby office building’s electrical demand. To enable this vehicle-to-grid and grid-to-vehicle communication, utilities will need to build a highly reliable and robust Smart Grid infrastructure, which offers this essential two-way communication.


In addition to PHEVs driving the transformation of the electric grid into the Smart Grid and the Smart Grid enhancing the way PHEVs operate, PHEVs will also reduce gasoline consumption, which offers several fringe benefits. Less gasoline consumption results in fewer carbon emissions, protecting the health of both the public and our planet. Lowering the demand for gasoline lessens our dependence on foreign oil. And for the consumer owning a PHEV, he or she will save money, since electricity costs less than gasoline.


Eventually, the vehicle-to-grid and grid-to-vehicle communication scenario may require millions of PHEVs to uniquely identify themselves with their owners and calculate their excess stored energy, based on present location, day of the week and other related factors, so that the vehicle has enough power to operate as the owner expects. The electric utility would need to offer a time-of-use rate structure that encourages off-peak charging for normal operations or possibly net metering, which credits the consumer for energy placed back into the grid by the vehicle.

“PHEVs will introduce a new dynamic in how electric utilities operate,” says Harris. “Because of their mobility, PHEVs will require new telemetry systems, billing concepts and related infrastructure — steps that will draw us closer to a Smart Grid.”

For more information, contact Kiah Harris, 816-822-3174.

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