Last week like millions of his fellow Texans were plunged into relentless darkness and cold, Nicholas Littlejohn considered himself lucky. In the area outside of Austin where he lives, the power first went out early Monday morning, then flashed throughout the week for 20 minutes at a time. Littlejohn decided to make the most of those minutes. When the power was on, he charged his 2011 Nissan Leaf, parked outside under a blanket of snow. Then when the lights went out again, he connected his car to an inverter, pushing electrons out of his 24-kilowatt-hour battery and into other things that were, at the time, more essential: lights, a radiator, an electrical device. blanket, and his Wi-Fi router. He jumped to plug in the fridge.
How many cars like Littlejohn would it take to replace the power that was missing last week on the Texas power grid? Emily Grubert, energy infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech, asked the question last weekend on Twitter. Her thought was sparked by a disheartening reality: “The idea was that a lot of people during these blackouts climbed into their cars to warm up,” she later told WIRED. In a way, car engines did at least some of the work that should have been done by the power grid. What if, she wondered, all cars were electric? What if that energy could be redistributed not just around homes, but over the grid itself, powering everyone’s lights and radiators? Assuming the grid lost 1 terawatt hour of energy overall, and also assuming a larger car battery, like that of a Tesla Model S, it would take maybe 10 million EVs to make up for it. total energy wasted, she thought. What looks like a lot of cars. But as she points out, there are 22 million vehicles registered in Texas alone. And soon, many more will be electric.
A network backed by 10 million Teslas is unlikely to be the top priority of most energy experts thinking about how to prevent future Texas-style crises. Yes, people have to drive. And yes, it would be impractical, if not impossible to coordinate. Experts have identified many smart ways to improve the Texas network: severe weather existing power plants and lines, improved connections to other networks, and regulations that encourage various forms of resilience as well as low prices. Better planning, wholesale. But as Grubert says, the crisis has highlighted many possible futures for a more reliable electricity grid. Batteries, large and small, are increasingly ubiquitous, whether we consciously connect them to the power grid or not. So how could we leverage them to make the network more agile and keep it energized? “What I was getting at is that there are a lot of ways we could think about planning for the future,” she says.
In states like California, finding ways to store energy has long been on the minds of regulators and utility operators. The main reason is the goal of the state to rely on 100% clean energy by 2045. The problem with this is that the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing – at least not all over the state and not all at once. Thus, since 2013, utilities have been required to procure energy storage systems that absorb energy otherwise wasted when renewables produce more than needed, and disburse it when there is a shortage of supply. It’s about balancing an uneven, but often predictable, load, like when solar panels are offline at night.