Which comes first: the smart grid or the electric vehicles?

Decision points may be closer than they appear. You turn on a switch and the light goes on. It’s a question auto manufacturers, utility companies, and city and regional planners are all asking—as are an increasing number of consumers. Who gets the bill when you recharge at work? How do utilities meet the need for all that additional electricity? And how do we afford to build out the infrastructure when the electric cars aren’t widely available—or sell the electric cars, when the infrastructure to power them doesn’t yet exist?

Here’s a quick look at some of the needs, challenges, opportunities and ideas that are coming together to make electric cars a reality.

Socio-industrial concerns

At the beginning of the 20th century, more automobiles in the United States were powered by electricity than by gasoline. But the need for longer travel ranges, a more affordable fuel source, and a reliable power infrastructure soon led to the dominance of the gas-powered internal combustion engine. A century later, a new set of concerns are driving a move away from gasoline and back to electricity as an ideal source for automotive power.

* The auto industry is working to reduce carbon emissions.
* Car owners are concerned with volatile and rising petroleum costs.
* Nations and industries are worried about the availability of energy sources and the impact of oil dependency on global security.
* Power utilities are developing alternate sources of power—including wind energy, solar energy and geothermal—but don’t have any way of storing the "extra" energy they generate on a large scale.

Enter the electric car. While hardly carbon neutral—even manufacturing an automobile uses carbon energy and carbon fuels currently generate two-thirds of the world’s electricity—electric cars would represent a major break with the internal combustion engine.

"In the last six months, e-mobility has become one of the most common topics when we meet with power companies," says Allan Schurr, IBM’s vice president of strategy and development for the energy and utilities industries. "They need to start looking at the investments they are going to make. I can tell you, every time we have a meeting with a utility client, they want to talk about this topic, even if it wasn’t on the agenda."

From coal-powered to wind power electric cars

Beyond reducing the use of gasoline, one aspect of a nationwide or worldwide fleet of electric cars could actually help spur the use of alternative, low-carbon energy sources. Today, many renewable sources of energy, such as solar or wind power, can be used to augment the traditional generation of electricity, but only if the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Otherwise, electricity is today generally derived from coal, natural gas and nuclear power. (The world’s power plants rely on coal for 40% of the power they generate; in the U.S., as much as 50% of the power comes from coal.) Regardless of the source, the power generated must often be used at the time it’s generated. And most of the current electrical grid cannot shift smoothly from renewable power sources to conventional power sources and back without a great deal of waste in turning generators on and off.

With the introduction of electric cars on a large scale, for the first time the power grid would also have significant battery storage capacity attached to it. If the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, the power generated by these alternate fuel sources could for the first time be stored in hundreds of thousands of batteries.

The fact that those batteries would most likely be privately owned, on wheels and with widely varying travel routes between periods of parking and recharging makes for some interesting challenges, to be certain.


One of the early assumptions about electric cars is that people would recharge the batteries over night while their car is parked in their garage, paying for this electricity on their normal monthly utility bill. There’s just one problem with that scenario: a lot of people don’t or can’t park the car in their garage.

For many people, it might make more sense to charge cars up in a more central location, such as an employer’s or train station’s parking lot. But this, too, raises questions: Who gets financially charged for that electricity? What if you travel outside your utility company’s service region—how do you pay for that electricity you use? And how do all those cars recharge their batteries during the day in what is already a peak usage period for electricity, especially if they are geographically concentrated at work or transit stations?

Another challenge is the battery. Most hybrid automobiles today rely on nickel-metal hydride batteries—the same technology used in many consumer electronics devices. For next-generation products, lithium-ion batteries are an increasingly popular choice for developers because they can deliver even more power for their size and weight—they have a higher "energy density," in the parlance of power researchers.

Yet even lithium ion batteries technology can’t compete with the energy density of old-fashioned gasoline. So batteries’ energy density will have to improve greatly over the next 10 years to enable a large-scale electric car industry.

To provide all this electricity for all these vehicles, power grids must become smart grids—capable of sending and receiving data along with energy. Utility companies, having already started down this path for peak demand reduction, carbon management and cost reasons, are also now completing plans and participating in standards bodies to prepare for the energy increase, peak variability and storage mobility that a new global fleet of electric cars represent.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) is working with a number of utilities, automobile manufacturers, academics and governments to bring about many of these capabilities. For example, IBM’s activities include…

* Vehicle telematics
* Embedded software
* Battery performance
* Network security
* Roaming and transaction management
* Smart grid integration
* Network optimization
* Renewables charging dispatch
* Infrastructure planning

…as well as related projects involving smart traffic, lean manufacturing and product lifecycle management for automakers and many others. Such as research into better batteries.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) researchers, along with colleagues in other companies and organizations, including national labs, have announced plans to develop a commercially viable lithium-air battery. Such a battery would use lithium, an energy-dense, highly flammable metal, to react with the readily available oxygen in the air.

Because they use air that’s pulled into the battery as needed, rather than store a second reactant inside the cell, lithium-air batteries could have an energy density of more than 5,000 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). That’s ten times the energy available from the top lithium-ion batteries today, and begins to get closer to the 13,200 Wh/kg energy density of gasoline. Or, to put it another way, IBM is developing the battery technology that will allow an electric car to travel 500 miles on a single charge.

How do we get there?

"It will require investment," says Allan Schurr, "but also synchronization of different parties, including parking lot operators, train station companies, local governments, universities, hotels, hospitals, employers. I can go down the list where people park their cars for many hours at a time. Those are the places that also need to provide electric vehicle charging."

To bring about the widespread adoption and service of electric cars, a lot of moving pieces have to fall into place in a way that’s as much choreography as it is coordination. "We have a chicken-and-egg problem," Schurr says. "If there aren’t enough users and enough vehicles, then the infrastructure doesn’t get built. If there isn’t enough infrastructure, then the vehicles aren’t purchased."

It’s no small challenge. But utility companies, automobile designers, physicists, materials researchers and urban and regional planners—with IBM’s help—are all working now to make this major shift from internal combustion engines to electric motors a choreographed, synchronized, plugged-in reality.