IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced its membership in the EDISON research consortium, a Denmark-based collaborative aimed at developing an intelligent infrastructure that will make possible the large scale adoption of electric vehicles powered by sustainable energy.

The EDISON effort (Electric Vehicles in a Distributed and Integrated Market using Sustainable Energy and Open Networks) consists of IBM, Denmark’s largest energy company DONG Energy, the regional energy company of Oestkraft, Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association. Due to the environmental benefits of the electric vehicle technologies, the research will be partly funded by the Danish government.

Market introduction and investment plans in Denmark will result in upwards of 10% of the country’s vehicles being all electric or hybrid electric during the coming years. In order to minimize CO2-emissions linked to electrified transport, global attention on vehicles and infrastructure that will maximize the use of renewable energy for mobility has increased. To achieve this on a large scale, electric vehicles require smart technologies to control charging and billing and to ensure the stability of the overall energy system.

“Denmark, the host of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change conference and the most energy efficient country in the EU, further underscores its ambitions here with the Edison project announcement,” said Guido Bartels, General Manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities industry. “There is already broad consensus that both wind energy and electric vehicles have enormous potential for a sustainable energy future — bringing the two together promises to be a winning combination.”

The first step of the consortium is to develop smart technologies to be implemented on the Danish island of Bornholm, designed to function as a testbed. The island has 40,000 inhabitants and an energy infrastructure characterized by a large proportion of wind energy. Creating a testbed on the island will allow researchers to study how the energy system functions as the number of electric vehicles increases. The studies will be simulation-based and will not impact security of supply on the island.

Within the project, researchers from IBM Denmark and from IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory will develop smart technologies that synchronize the charging of the electric vehicles with the availability of wind in the grid. IBM has also contributed a hardware platform to the Technical University of Denmark that will be used for large-scale real-time simulations of the energy system and the impact of electric vehicles. When completed, the project will contribute to reaching the political objective of increasing the share of renewable energy in overall energy consumption.

“Electric vehicles are one of the technologies we can use to incorporate renewable energy into transportation,” said Danish Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard. “That is why we are making it possible for electric cars to enter the market in order to replace conventional fuel. Projects like Edison show how it’s possible to create sustainable solutions in real life.”

While various companies have announced initiatives in Denmark that will contribute to the overall adoption of an electric vehicle system, EDISON will address the entire end-to-end process to make the system possible — this includes ensuring overall grid stability and supporting the increased use of renewable energy. The smart technologies developed within EDISON may also be applied to the management of other types of decentralized batteries throughout the grid.

“Electric vehicles have enormous potential for creating a cleaner energy system as well as a cleaner transport system,” said Tim Mondorf, Nordic Business Development Executive, Energy & Environment at IBM. “We look forward to creating a working, intelligent management system first on the real-life test laboratory of the island of Bornholm, and in the longer term for Denmark as a whole.”

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Electric Cars and a Smarter Grid

ZapcarPeter DaSilva for The New York TimesZapcar electric cars charging in Califorina. Analysts are sanguine about this kind of thing becoming more common — someday.

Electric cars and a smart electric grid have a bright future, according to panelists at a roundtable discussion on the subject that I attended last Friday in Boston.

“I would say that electricity is a vastly superior fuel for the light vehicle fleet,” said Willett Kempton, a professor and alternative energy specialist at the University of Delaware.

And in a true smart grid, electric cars will not only be able to draw on electricity to run their motors, they will also be able to do the reverse: send electricity stored in their batteries back into the grid when it is needed. In effect, cars would be acting like tiny power stations.

“Most days, most cars are going to have lots of extra battery capacity,” said Mr. Kempton, noting that on average, American automobiles get driven for just one hour each day. Electrifying the entire vehicle fleet would provide more than three times the U.S.’s power generation, he said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, is on board with the idea.


“Vehicle-to-grid is, I believe, the salvation of the automotive industry in the United States,” declared Marc Spitzer, an agency commissioner who was also on the panel.

Sven Thesen, the communication and technology director for Better Place, a start-up that is gaining traction (see this recent New York Times article) in its effort to create a network for electric cars in various countries, likened the concept of electric cars to cellphones.

“Fifteen years ago, how many people had a cellphone?” he asked.

Now, people are used to cellphone subscription plans and plugging the phone into the wall at night, Mr. Thesen reasoned, so a switch to electric cars would also be manageable.

And where does Better Place fit in?

“We will own the battery. We will always own the batteries,” said Mr. Thesen. “You guys own the cars.”

He envisioned “hundreds of thousands” of charging spots, as well as a number of stations where drained batteries could be exchanged for fresh ones.

A key thing, he said, will be to recharge the batteries at an acceptable time for the electricity grid — to “make sure people aren’t charging at the very peak, peak time,” like late afternoon when the electricity grid is already weighted down by demands like air conditioning.

Battery recharging would typically take two to four hours, he said.

So far Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and California’s Bay Area have plans to implement the Better Place model. Mr. Thesen said that a factory in Turkey was being refurbished to be able to produce 100,000 electric vehicles a year.

But a large-scale system of electric cars and smart grids is unlikely to be ready soon.

Asked when there might be one million electric vehicles on the road that could also feed their battery capacity back into the grid in a two-way exchange, the panelists generally said between 2017 and 2020.

The stimulus plan might jump-start new energy investments, which could drastically change how we use electricity.


NEW YORK ( — For years we’ve been hearing about the nation’s crumbling and outdated electricity grid.

The 2003 blackout that plunged 50 million people into darkness was a wake-up call. Then this summer T. Boone Pickens, who’s planning on investing billions in building wind farms, called for massive investments to revamp our nation’s aging grid, so that it can handle wind power distribution.

On Thursday, President-elect Barack Obama called for a similar investment, perhaps billions, to begin work on a new “smart” electric grid to replace the nation’s old, fragmented and inefficient system.

“We’ll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy,” Obama said in a speech stumping for the passage of a massive government stimulus plan to jump-start the economy, expected to pass Congress in the next few weeks. “That means updating the way we get our electricity by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation.”

Quenching our ever-growing thirst for ‘juice’

In 1950, 20% of the nation’s economic output was directly dependent on electricity. Now that number is 60% and rising fast, said Jesse Berst, editor of, an industry Web site. In an era of energy scarcity and global warming concerns, he said building a better grid is essential for economic growth.

“What you’re going to get is the foundation of our future prosperity. It’s what will make all the other things we want possible – renewable energy, lower rates, cleaner power.”

Berst, a former tech analyst, says the investments made in smart-grid technology over the next couple of decades will dwarf those that fueled the tech boom.

Berst is enthusiastic about the importance the grid will play, and many others who study the energy industry are also thinking big.

The Brattle Group, a think tank, estimates the nation will need to spend up to $1.5 trillion on its electricity system over the next 20 years – and that’s just enough to keep the lights on.

An investment in cleaner energy could put the figure at $2 trillion, and would include building new power plants, transmission lines, and focus on conservation.

On the grid alone – the lines, towers, meters and substations – Brattle estimates the first steps towards a smart grid could cost about $900 billion over the next two decades. That includes money for computers, meters and software to digitize the grid.

To make the grid fully smart, money would be needed to change out every utility’s entire computer system, allow renewable energy sources to plug into it from various points, and incorporate electric car recharging stations that also use car batteries to double as electric storage devices. The price tag for this isn’t known, but it would likely cost hundreds of billions more and wouldn’t be ready until sometime after 2030, according to Brattle Group principal Peter Fox-Penner.

The nation has already started down this road, with pilot programs using smart electric meters running in several communities. The coming stimulus package will most likely accelerate things further.

What makes it smart

Digitizing the grid is what makes it smart. Berst compared it to our telecommunications system – decades ago a human operator connected calls manually via a series of tubes. Now it’s all done electronically, which helps increase telephone traffic capacity.

Digitizing the electric grid would require new smart home meters and appliances with the ability to talk to one another, and software and hardware to send all this information back to the utility.

It would also require various policy changes that encourage transparent pricing, give utilities incentives to conserve, better connect the nation’s fragmented power grid, and eliminate the need to build some new power plants.

Currently most electricity is sold at a fixed price, no matter when it’s used. That means a utility must build enough power plants and lines to meet maximum demand at the peak time – an expensive proposition that leads to lots of overbuilding.

With a smart grid, power could be better managed as consumers would be encouraged, through electricity prices that varied throughout the day, to use power at different times.

For example, a person could load their dishwasher at 7 p.m., when electricity costs, say, 15 cents a kilowatt hour and program the dishwasher to begin washing when electricity dropped to 5 cents, maybe a couple of hours later in the evening.

Utilities could also use it to manage power in people’s homes, if consumers agreed to it. The utility would have the ability to turn on or off certain non-essential functions, like a pool filter or air conditioner, maybe in exchange for giving the consumer a lower rate.

This would let the utility distribute electricity usage more evenly, eliminating the need to build expensive new power plants.

A smart grid would also reduce overall electricity consumption by reminding households of their energy consumption. Smart meters, which can look similar to a computer screen, are mounted inside the house where they constantly monitor energy use. Today’s meters are located outside, out of plain sight.

“If you have information on how much you’re using, you might turn off that TV you’re not using,” said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power, one of the country’s largest utilities.

The utility industry estimates smart meters can cut electricity consumption by 20-30% during peak hours.

Job creation

The smart meters – meters than can communicate with appliances and the larger grid – would be a prerequisite to any larger, smarter grid.

McHenry says this is one area where lawmakers may spend some stimulus money. The money could be doled out as grants either to utilities or state agencies, and it would put people to work both building and installing meters.

The utility industry estimates it would cost about $50 billion to equip every home in the country with a smart meter, with each costing about $200, or roughly twice the cost of a normal meter.

A coalition of environmental groups and the utility industry is urging lawmakers to set aside roughly $1 billion to begin this program as part of the stimulus package.

More power lines could help, too

McHenry, along with people like Pickens, say the country needs to build more high-voltage transmission lines that would move renewable energy from isolated areas – like wind in the Midwest or solar in the Southwest – to cities.

McHenry says an investment of $60 billion would enable the country to transport enough energy to offset 20% of its current total electricity use with renewable power.

She said high-voltage lines are also 10% more efficient than their smaller cousins.

Environmentalists cautiously support building more transmission lines, but stress they should be used to transport clean, renewable energy, not power from dirty, old coal plants.

“We have to make sure these individual decisions reflect our long-term priorities,” said Dave Hamilton, director for global warming and energy projects at the Sierra Club. “We can’t do it wrong, we aren’t going to be able to go back and do it again.”