Killer Aps: Plugging Chevy Volts into the Smart Grid

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 10, 2012

AUSTIN, TEXAS—An Austin lifer explained to me in great detail that the Pecan Street Project—a unique neighborhood of smart grids and 60 electric cars—is not actually located on Pecan Street. What do I know; I’m a carpetbagger in these parts! I was in Austin recently to speak at the SWSX Eco conference, a spirited event that allowed me—during brief down times—to find out little things about my host city.

The Chevrolet Volt: Connecting to the utility gives us options. (GM photo)
The Chevrolet Volt: Connecting to the utility gives us options. (GM photo)

Didja know that Texas, yes, Texas, is leading the pack when it comes to installing electric car charging stations? You’d think that the San Francisco Bay Area was number one, but according to information from the PlugShare app, actually it’s fourth and Dallas is second. Austin is number seven.

There’s a reason for this. As you may remember from my story on fast charging at the Cracker Barrel, Texas is the home of eVgo, a utility-owned service that lets Texans subscribe to electric car charging—it’s an unvarying monthly bill, like cable. It would be cool if you could pay for gasoline that way, wouldn’t it? Of course, it encourages driving and miles traveled, but it’s good in every other way.

eVgo started in Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth, but it’s expanding to California and the Washington, DC area. It's a really creative example of a utility helping smooth the way for EVs, and if you want to know what other power providers are doing, click here. Texas also benefited from the $100 million federal EV Project, which installed 14,000 public chargers strategically around the U.S. Austin is coming on strong. The very first Whole Foods charging station was installed at the flagship store in Austin, and then there’s Pecan Street.

Austin's Pecan Street is the largest concentration of Chevy Volts anywhere. (Pecan Street photo)
Austin's Pecan Street is the largest concentration of Chevy Volts anywhere. (Pecan Street photo)

The project hosts the largest collection of Chevy Volts anywhere, 57 of them (and three other electric cars) in a 1,000-home area around Austin’s Mueller neighborhood. Pecan Street people got a real deal on them, too, $15,000 off the $39,000 list price (including the $7,500 federal income tax credit). Pecan Street homes are ultra-green, with carbon-sequestering landscaping, smart-grid-connected appliances and LEED-compliant buildings. The idea is something like an “energy Internet,” with the toaster and the washing machine—and the car—connected to and interacting with the grid.

Paul Pebbles, manager of GM’s OnStar two-way communications system, told me it’s fortuitous that Volts come standard with the feature, which is most commonly used to rescue people with flat tires and to help owners find their cars in parking lots. But OnStar also enables unprecedented connectivity for electric cars. One thing that it does is enable a new app that’s being tested at Pecan Street, providing a daily read of electricity usage and cost, and the EV’s share. “If you consume $5.50 of electricity in a day, the app might tell you that the Volt was 75 cents of that,” Pebbles said. “That’s useful information that could encourage you to charge at night.”

This is one view from GM's OnStar EcoHub. (GM photo)
This is one view from GM's OnStar EcoHub. (GM photo)

Night charging is beneficial because utilities won’t be overloaded by clusters of electric cars all plugging in when their owners come home—at the peak usage time of 6 p.m. The night rate can be less than half the peak rate, and the drop would immediately show up on the app. “This is real data, all in one place,” Pebbles said.

OnStar connectivity is going to do more than that. Other uses, according to Pebbles and Britta Gross, director of global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization at GM, include the ability to communicate time-of-use electricity rate changes to Volt owners, and demand response.

That’s a big one. Pecan Street’s smart-grid-connected appliances (like the refrigerator) can be temporarily shut down by the utility, without damaging anything, to reduce peak loads. The neighborhood’s consumers can get $5 to $10 a month to allow their air conditioning to go offline on the hottest days in the summer, Pebbles said. OnStar lets Austin Energy, or any other power provider, close down a Volt charging session as needed for a bit, while still ensuring that the car will be ready to go in the morning. And Volt owners can get paid for that, too.

Now this is really cool: GM recently conducted a test where it coordinated the recharging of Google’s “Gfleet” of 17 Chevrolet Volts based at company HQ in Mountain View, California with the available renewable energy on the grid. In other words, if four wind turbines were online and producing power afterhours, the system limited the amount of available electricity to that. Here’s an answer to questions about “dirty power” on the grid. These EVs were charged via zero emissions (virtually; you can’t track the actual electrons).

Here's a closer look at the EcoHub on video:

Obviously, Pecan Street could be anywhere in America. But it’s in Texas, land of Lone Star Beer, Rick Perry and armadillos. Texas is also a national leader in wind power, with installed capacity above 10,000 megawatts accounting for 8.7 percent of all power use, so there’s not much for the blue states to be smug about. Just don’t get me started on the legislators who are playing politics with the expiring federal tax credit for wind.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One