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Study focuses on electric cars' effect on power grid

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Electric cars could be the wave of the future, but as they hit the roads, they have to get their charges. And that means they'll pull power from the state's power grid.

Researchers in Austin are working to figure out what kind of strain that would put on energy resources, and here's how they're doing it.

University of Texas researcher Tuttle is what you might call an automobile enthusiast.

"I enjoy anything mechanical with a motor or engine that goes," he said.

But his latest love is maybe not what you'd expect from a car nut.

"If you enjoy driving, you'll actually enjoy an electric vehicle in terms of the driving experience," Tuttle said.

You heard him right -- an electric vehicle.

"You put your foot on the brake pedal and push the button and it powers up," he said.

Tuttle drives a Chevy Volt. But as he tools around in his 15-month-old Volt, he's not just any driver.

"Were you surprised at how quick it was when you first drove it?" we asked him.

"Yes, yes," he said.

Tuttle is also a research fellow at the University of Texas, studying how these electric cars affect energy use and how they impact the electric grid when they're in the garage charging for hours. They're biggest impact on the grid since the air conditioner.

"These are unique loads for the grid," Tuttle said.

And he's doing some the research in an Austin neighborhood that has the greatest residential concentration of electric vehicles in the country.

"It's a great car," Kathy Sokolic said.

Sokolic is one of those residents.

"I'm pretty cheap, but I like to do things that make a difference," she said.

And she's part of a unique program that monitors her energy habits, part of which include the use and charging of her all-electric Nissan Leaf.

"The Leaf is definitely a step up in luxury. It's got lots of bells and whistles, but it doesn't use any gasoline so it's fantastic," Sokolic said.

The project is called Pecan Street, and Sokolic is one of 50 drivers in the study, which hopes to answer questions about the viability of dense electric car clusters.

"If everybody comes home at 6-7pm and plugs in their car at the same time on a summer evening, what happens to the stability of your electric grid?" said Brewster McCracken with Pecan Street Inc.

It's a question that still needs answers, questions Tuttle is excited to try and help answer as he pushes the pedal on his latest passion.

"There are so many benefits from us getting to the point where we can eliminate imported oil, and if we do that by having a combination of conventional vehicles where they're needed and these new technologies, then we have the best of both worlds," Tuttle said.

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