Mitsubishi plugs in smart grid project

Mitsubishi Electric on Monday said it will invest about $76 million in a smart-grid project, part of a companywide push into equipment for modernizing the electricity grid.

The company will create two installations–a residential-size building and a commercial facility–which will have on-site power generation through photovoltaic panels and local energy storage with rechargeable batteries. The flow of energy will be managed and optimized by power electronics and smart meters to test the performance of the equipment.

Mitsubishi Electric said the projects are part of a corporatewide push to supply smart-grid technologies for the electric power industry and meet global demand for low-carbon energy.

In one experiment, Mitsubishi Electric will set up a mini-power station built around a four-megawatt solar array. It will include equipment, such as switches and smart meters, to manage the flow of energy and a battery.

The residential-scale system will feature a 200-kilowatt photovoltaic array with a home energy-management system, which uses a smart meter and network-connected appliances.

The home system recalls work being done by Panasonic in this area. The industrial giant is developing a line of energy systems for the home, including energy-efficient TVs and appliances, solar panels, batteries, fuel-cell hot water heating systems, and a home energy-management dashboard.

Samsung, another company well known for its electronics, last week announced that it plans to invest $20 billionin energy and health care over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, an executive from battery supplier BYD said last month that the company plans to supply a combination of equipment, including solar panels and batteries, to homeowners.

Data collected from these various research sites will be used to develop new products and architectures that could enhance the performance of existing Smart Grid technologies. Mitsubishi is placing particular emphasis on the photovoltaic segment of its business. It has identified China, India, North America and Southeast Asia as regions to target.

Several major Japanese corporations have taken a greater interest in the Smart Grid recently, including Toshiba (which landed a relevant partnership with SunPower in early March), Zhimizu and Kyocera. And South Korean giant Samsung also just announced that it will sink $20.6 billion into green technologies, with a special focus on solar.

But Smart Grid efforts aren’t only heating up in Asia. At the end of last month, General Electric joined forces with Nissan to research the impact electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles may have on national electric grids — and how predicted grid overload crises may be averted. Other U.S. corporations like Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel and Microsoft have also been vocal about offering Smart Grid products to utilities and homeowners alike.

However, with consumer-friendly plug-in cars like Nissan’s Leaf and General Motors’ Chevy Volt preparing to launch as early as this year, it seems like Smart Grid solutions to major challenges are needed now — not in several years.

Some analysts say that less than 10 electric cars on the same block could cause power outages. If this is true, Mitsubishi, General Electric, and the rest will need to race electric vehicle market adoption to make sure the grid can handle the next generation of transportation. This sounds dicier than it should be.

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Chevy Volt 2010

Volt is an electric car that can create its own electricity. Plug it in, let it charge overnight, and it’s ready to run on a pure electric charge for up to 40 miles(3) — gas and emissions free. After that, Volt keeps going, even if you can’t plug it in. Volt uses a range-extending gas generator that produces enough energy to power it for hundreds of miles on a single tank of gas.

General Motors believes the Volt will earn an EPA rating of 230 mpg in city driving.  The company hasn’t provided an estimate on the car’s highway mileage, in part because the EPA is developing a new mileage testing procedure specifically for Volt-like vehicles.  GM CEO Fritz Henderson, however, has said the car would carry a combined mileage rating of more than 100 mpg.

The Volt is designed to finish most drives with its batteries holding as little as 30 percent of a full charge. If the Volt is allowed to run the EPA’s circuits that way, designers say, it can complete the tests using its gasoline engine less than 15 percent of the time — and receive an MPG rating in the hundreds.

Owners will plug the Volt into a standard household outlet to recharge its batteries.   It can be plugged into either a standard 120-volt wall outlet, or into a 240-volt outlet like those used to power large appliances.  Plugged into a standard 120-volt outlet, the Volt will recharge fully in about eight hours.  Plugging the Volt into a 240-volt outlet cuts charging time to less than three hours.

The batteries can also be charged by the gasoline engine onboard the Volt, which will kick in when the battery charge is below 30 percent. As in other hybrids, regenerative braking will help to capture brake energy to recharge batteries as well.

The Volt’s gasoline engine is a 1.4-liter four-cylinder model. It can use gasoline or E85 as fuel.  This engine, however, doesn’t power the wheels of the car. It acts as a generator to recharge the batteries while the car is in motion.

That gasoline engine is connected to a fuel tank that holds only six gallons of gas — but, working with the car’s batteries, that should be sufficient to give it a 400 mile range between fill-ups.

Price Range: Pricing for the 2010 Chevrolet Volt has not been finalized. The most recent estimate places the price at $40,000, with a $7,500 federal tax rebate available after that price.

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Chevy Volt Hydrogen

Remember the Volt? GM rolled it out in Detroit a few months ago as an electric-dominant plug-in hybrid that would recharge overnight when you plugged it into a regular household outlet.

Now in Shanghai, GM says it’s got a hydrogen fuel-cell approach for the Volt, which it’s dubbing the second variant of the E-Flex system. That’s a mouthful. It would combine “GM’s new fifth-generation fuel-cell propulsion technology” (hard to believe they’re on the fifth generation already; my, how they’ve grown) and a lithium-ion battery. For those of you who’ve been following the Volt story, you know GM hasn’t quite got that battery yet. It’s betting it will be developed in time for the Volt to be delivered around 2009 or 2010.

The big difference with the fuel cell is that this car will not use any gas; the earlier version used a gas engine to charge the battery when the electric charge ran out. The fuel-cell version, GM says, will still plug in to a household outlet and should go about 300 miles of, as they say, “petroleum- and emissions-free electric driving.”

GM says the fifth-generation fuel-cell system is only half the size of its previous fuel-cell system, something that offers even more hope for the future as engineers find ways to make these systems smaller, lighter and more efficient. The automaker also says these advancements mean fuel cells should be taken seriously as a power source for the future; we can’t prove otherwise, but fuel cells have been talked about for an awfully long time and have yet to make much of a splash in the consumer automotive world. And, as GM itself points out, without hydrogen fueling stations across the country, cars with these kinds of systems aren’t going anywhere.

Still, a car that runs totally on electricity and goes 300 miles between charges? Should save drivers a ton of money on gas, and help clean the air (though we’re still burning coal in many cases to supply the electricity in the first place). For drivers who only have short commutes, the fuel-cell Volt may be the answer they need. The question is, how long before it arrives for real at dealers, and how much will it cost?