Wind powered cars

There’s a neat, long article over at Wait But Why that I found quite interesting. It purports to be about Elon Musk and Tesla (which might dissuade some readers) but it’s actually about climate change and electric cars.

I wanted to add something to it, but that means you should probably read that article first.

One of the first things everyone hears about when looking at renewable energy like wind and solar is variability. Everyone upon hearing that variability of wind is a problem thinks the same thing: gosh, the wind might not blow and there won’t be enough power!

This is wrong. The actual variability problem is the other way around: high winds create too much power. (Why aren’t low winds a problem? Well, it’s possible for them to be an issue, but low wind speed is actually pretty rare 100 meters up. The kinds of calm days we experience are actually hot-air bubbles close to the surface protecting us from the winds higher up.)

Wind becomes uneconomical if you can’t actually use the power you’re generating and it’s a waste. This is why people talk about “grid infrastructure upgrades” as something necessary to support wind power. Iowa’s got 30% of their power coming from wind, and so they want to build a connection to Chicago. To sell power, not buy it. Because excess is what we worry about.

Enter electric cars and the “smart grid.” How do you use up excess energy? Why not offer it up at a discount to anyone willing to defer drawing it until an excess is available? Your car might have a couple of slider settings that look like this:

Car charging diagramThe end result? A fleet of electric cars absorbs excess capacity when we need it to, and also reduces electrical demand when there isn’t excess capacity. Smoothing out demand to match supply.

This is one of the things I love about energy innovations: synergy. Electric cars and wind energy make each other better. There’s also a nice synergy between nuclear energy (as baseload) and grid storage… but perhaps another day.

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