Austin Energy: Ready for Impact

If you ask Austen Librach and Larry Alford of Austin Energy whether or not the utility is ready for the grid impact of up to 100,000 plugged-in electric vehicles (PEV) charging up overnight, they’ll give you an unequivocal “yes!”

In fact, back in 2006, Austin Energy started a national grass-roots initiative called Plug-in Partners aimed at convincing automakers that a market for plug-in hybrid vehicles already existed.  In 2008, it declared the program a success and terminated it.

On a technical tour as part of Renewable Energy World North America Conference and Expo, Librach and Alford outlined the initiatives the utility already has underway to deal with PEVs.  The utility believes that once adopted, if consumers plug in their vehicles at night, Texas wind power could potentially charge them up, so that consumers would literally be driving on the wind.  In Texas, the wind blows the strongest during the night. ::continue::

Austin Energy anticipates that by 2015-2020, up to 100,000 PEVs could be on Austin city streets.  The utility is still working out how it will deal with charging stations across the city.  “We probably want to own them,” said Librach.  It is also deciding how much of an incentive it will offer to purchasers of electric vehicles to offset the cost of putting 220V outlets — the same used by U.S. household clothes dryers — in their garage or apartment parking lot.  A 220V outlet won’t be necessary but will make charging faster.

Down the line, Austin Energy sees electric cars as part of a complete smart grid system that the utility will tap into — actually adding stability and energy storage to the grid.  Imagine 75,000 fully charged cars parked in office parking lots across the city on a hot summer day when the air conditioning load is severely taxing the grid.  Now imagine if the utility could somehow tap that stored energy in the vehicles, crediting back the consumer and ensuring that s/he can still get home that night.  “That’s the future,” explained Alford.

Tour participants got a glimpse of the utility’s two converted plug-in hybrids that Alford can communicate with from his computer in his office.  Among other things, he can set the car to charge up only when the electricity price drops below a certain value, and he can check how much charge and gas the car currently has.  He envisions a scenario in which a homeowner who is about to set out for a drive on a hot day can use his/her smartphone to tell the car to start up and run the air conditioner while still plugged in — thereby using energy from the home, not draining the battery in the car.   And by the way, he said, an iPhone “app” for that already exists for the Chevy Volt, and the car isn’t even expected on the market until later this year.

Tour participants included utilities, investors and battery manufacturers from across the U.S, as well as places as far away as Japan and Australia.  Stay tuned for video highlights from the tour as well as much more coverage from Renewable Energy World Conference and Expo.

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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at

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