Electric avenue, electric cars on a two-way street?

Think of it as the end of cars' slacker days: No more sitting idle for hours in car parks or garages racking up payments, but instead earning their keep by helping store power for the electricity grid.

"Cars sit most of the time," said Jeff Stein, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan. "What if it could work for you while it sits there? If you could use a car for something more than just getting to work or going on a family vacation, it would be a whole different way to think about a vehicle, and a whole different way to think about the power grid, too."

Stein leads a National Science Foundation-funded team exploring plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) that not only use grid electricity to meet their power needs, but also the car’s potential to store electricity from the wind or sun, or even feed electricity back into the grid, earning money for the owner.

Stein and his colleagues envision a world where the electric cars become “distributed” storage, doubling as mobile holding tanks for electricity, ready to serve in their down time.

"If we had lots of PHEVs all plugged into the grid, then what seems like an insignificant amount of energy storage becomes a large energy storage," he said. Stein’s team already has made some progress understanding battery health and life – a significant issue in a vehicle that depends on large, expensive batteries and the charging and discharging that will be asked of them.

“We’re exploring how an owner can charge it and utilize the battery in a way that is battery health conscience to extend the useful life of the battery,” Stein said. “That’s especially important if we also think about charging vehicles at off-peak hours, and it’s also important if we’re talking about this shared opportunity for electric storage. What’s good for the battery isn’t necessarily good for the grid.”

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