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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Mitsubishi iMiEV

According to unconfirmed reports from Japanese news sources, Mitsubishi Motors will begin supplying electric cars to PSA/Peugeot-Citroen Group as early as next year. Japan’s fifth-largest carmaker could supply as many as 10,000 Mitsubishi i-MiEV passenger electric cars a year to the French automaker by 2011 on an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) basis.

At Mitsubishi’s first driving demonstration of its i MIEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) prototype, we jumped behind the wheel to check out the sounds of silence.

Battery Life
Once we’re motoring along, the interior of the i MIEV seems as quiet as a church and the scenery slips silently past. When you back out of a parking lot, you can hear yourself breathe.

Apart from the lack of any recognizable noise, this i minicar seems like any current showroom model from Mitsubishi. Look closer, however, and you notice that the four-speed automatic transmission has been replaced by a two-position gear selector that lets you choose Drive or Eco mode. And where the tachometer normally goes on the instrument panel, this i sports a meter that indicates the charge status of the battery and the discharge rate.

With the i MIEV’s motor, inverter and charger located under the floor of the luggage area behind us, the 22 lithium-ion cells are artfully spread under the belly pan. Given that the car weighs 2,380 pounds — 397 pounds more than its gasoline-powered counterpart — it feels better to drive than we expect. Its low center of gravity helps minimize body roll and reduce brake dive.

The 2010 Mitsubishi i MIEV is expected to go on sale by the end of 2009 for around 2.5 million yen ($24,000), although Japanese government subsidies for zero-emissions cars reduce this price by 50 percent.

As a kind of preview as to what’s coming in terms of future zero-emissions cars, the i MIEV is a significant breakthrough. But to tell the truth, we were hoping for a car with a reliable real-world range of at least 90 miles — not just a theoretical range — which would permit a useful half-day trip before a quick recharge at lunchtime.

The introduction of the MiEV OS (MiEV Operating System) – an advanced integrated vehicle management system into which the company has poured its wealth of know-how garnered from many years of EV research and development – has provided the kind of high performance and reliability that befits a new-generation EV.

The i-MiEV uses a 3-way charging system that allows the drive battery to be charged at home or when out and about. For normal charging i-MiEV is connected to either a standard 100-volt or 200-volt domestic outlet using the charging cables supplied with the vehicle. The i-MiEV’s battery can also be “quick charged” at quick-charge stations which are currently being established throughout Japan.

The i-MiEV is powered by a very high energy-density lithium-ion battery manufactured by Lithium Energy Japan. The large-capacity drive battery is comprised of 88 lithium-ion cells connected in series and is installed under the floor in the center of the vehicle. This configuration contributes to outstanding handling and stability due to the car’s low center of gravity.

The high points from our time in a pre-production, right-hand-drive i-MiEV:

  • SIZE: This is a very, very small car, but it carries four adults within more room than you’d expect.
  • PERFORMANCE: Keeps up with urban traffic, especially if you leave “Eco” mode off.
  • FEATURES: It’s got air-conditioning, electric windows, a stereo, and other standard equipment.
  • QUALITY & REFINEMENT: Well-built, simple but functional, nothing to be ashamed of.
  • BOTTOM LINE: If they can make it pass US safety standards, we think Mitsubishi could sell thousands of i-MiEVs a year here. It’s that good.

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