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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What the Greentech Can Do for Electric Cars

Cheaper, longer-lasting, safer and smaller — those are the kinds of rechargeable batteries that could become available for electric cars if some of the research projects funded under the Department of Energy’s latest round of grants for high-risk, early-stage energy technologies deliver on their moonshot ambitions.

Of the more than $106 million in grants announced this week under the Energy Department’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program, nearly a third — some $34.6 million — has been allocated to 10 projects developing energy storage tech for plug-in vehicles. In addition, 13 projects working on electrofuels (converting hydrogen and carbon dioxide into motor fuel, for example), have garnered more than $41.2 million.

In the group of energy storage projects, a 6-year-old company called ReVolt Technology (a spin-off of one of the research institute SINTEF, Norway) won the largest award — just over $5 million — to work on zinc-air flow batteries that would enable plug-in vehicles to drive longer distances on a single charge. Sion Power Corp, founded in 1994 as a spin-off from Brookhaven National Lab, follows close behind with a $5 million grant to develop a lithium-sulfur battery that in theory could power an electric vehicle for more than 300 miles between charges.

Created in 2007, but left unfunded until the passage of last year’s Recovery Act, ARPA-E has $400 million to award over two years, and winning teams are required to share at least 10 percent of the project costs. Since the program is meant to support work on tech that other investors consider too risky, each of the awards represents something of a gamble.

Massachusetts-based battery maker A123Systems, which went public in September and scored a $249 million DOE grant last summer, has gotten in on two of the latest ARPA-E bets, as a partner on projects led by Applied Materials and MIT. Awarded grants of more than $4 million each, those projects will focus on developing a low-cost manufacturing process for lithium-ion batteries, and a new type of semi-solid rechargeable flow battery.

Other winners in this latest round of grants include startup Planar Energy (about $4 million), PolyPlus Technologies (nearly $5 million), MIT spin-off Pellion Technologies ($3.2 million), Recapping Inc. ($1 million) based in Menlo Park, Calif., and Missouri University of Science & Technology (nearly $1 million), working on a lithium-air battery.

While 10 projects focused on energy storage tech for transportation in this latest round, there’s only one automaker in the mix: Honda, which is partnering research into all-electron batteries (moving electrons rather than ions) led by Stanford University.

In the bigger picture, if even one of these research projects pans out it could disrupt the auto industry as we know it. That’s a big “if” however, and this research remains at an early enough stage that we likely won’t see the impact of it for years to come. As as CalCars.org founder Felix Kramer has put it to us, ARPA-E is “explicitly for long-term home runs,” rather than near-term solutions.

For the full list of awards and project descriptions, click here