We're in the part of Core III (Environmental Sustainability) where, every semester for a dozen years now, we talk about energy efficiency, renewable energy, and improved forms of conventional energy -- the mitigation response to climate change (when combined with methane and NOX abatement).
This requires that your humble professor maintain currency in the fast-moving world of energy systems. One area of importance is grid storage and systems to handle the inherent intermittency of solar, wind, and other renewable energy.
This new idea is to use smart grid charging of electric vehicles to round out peaks and valleys in the electric dispatch cycle.
Rocky Mountain Institute has for years suggested that the national electric car fleet would be useful as grid storage. This notion, from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, takes that idea a step further.
I can't say enough nice things about the role of the National Labs in energy science. They've really come through with some cool ideas in recent years.
Ordinarily, were we all suddenly to switch on our electric loads together, as, say, on Superbowl Sunday, grid-service organizations like ISO New England would normally call for spot-price dispatch.
Although not particularly polluting, this is the most expensive form of electricity. It generally comes from fast-dispatch natural gas turbine plants or grid-storage hydropower plants, and is used to power up the grid to handle peaks.
But instead, according to this idea, battery-charging loads from electric cars could be controlled remotely to round out peaks and troughs.
What a great idea!
In particular this would free up grid capacity to allow faster deployment and greater grid penetration of wind and solar power than would otherwise be possible.
Unfortunately, it could also be used to round out peaks and troughs that result from the use of inflexible coal thermal plants (which can't respond to demand spikes).
I subscribe to the optimistic view that coal is the "walking dead" or "zombie" form of electricity production, given the new lower price of gas, large scale wind and (distributed) solar, and given the more aggressive GHG regulation begun under the Obama EPA after Massachusetts vs. EPA, so I doubt any self-respecting grid operator would imagine they could expand the use of coal on this basis, at least in the US.
(Increased US exports of coal are another matter altogether, and will have to be dealt with ASAP, by some other means.)