COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

The multi-miracle in Balboa Park

It may not be immediately obvious, but Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 is one of the more important days in the history of civilization. On that date, in a quiet corner of the sprawling parking lot in Balboa Park, which serves the world famous San Diego Zoo, inside a small, newly constructed SDG&E concrete block building, a unique and highly sophisticated piece of energy-related equipment debuted, ushering in a dramatic transformation in how energy is obtained, produced, distributed, stored and used.

It is no accident that SDG&E is the first to design, specify and deploy this technology in this way, as the leadership and employees of SDG&E are forging the way forward to a nearly carbon-free system for energy production.

As part of that effort, and in order to provide fast charging for electric vehicles using solar PV as the primary energy resource, a collaboration between SDG&E, City of San Diego, GE, UC San Diego, and CleanTECH San Diego, known as Smart City San Diego, brought forth a “Solar-to-EV” project at the zoo.

The underlying technology encouraged and deployed by SDG&E in connection with that effort has broad, world-wide application for all forms of intermittent renewable energy, including that produced by large scale wind and solar PV arrays.

At the core of the SDG&E system is a unique inverter manufactured by Princeton Power Systems (PPS) in New Jersey, referred to as a Demand Response Inverter (DRI-100), one specifically modified for SDG&E’s purpose of allowing fast charging of electric vehicles from renewable sources, including wind and solar PV.

It’s worth noting that development of the PPS demand-response inverter system was aided, beginning in September 2010, with $2.7 million in financial support from the Obama administration’s federal Department of Energy (DOE) through its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) program. That was money very well spent!

The DRI-100, most lovingly referred to as a “multi-channel, grid connected, bidirectional inverter,” when combined with a properly sized lithium ion polymer rechargeable battery, a transmission grid connection, and intermittent renewable energy resources (typically wind or solar photovoltaic -- PV), form a perfect platform for remotely dispatching or shifting energy from renewable sources to storage to grid, and vice versa, and all at the same time. It’s capable of responding to and supporting grid stability and peak power demands or spikes, thus eliminating the need to build small conventional “peaker” power plants through the use of one or more medium-size rechargeable batteries. In effect, it’s the epitome of a modern, carbon-free, dispatched energy system.

Using this system, solar energy can be stored directly into the batteries of pluggable hybrid and all-electric cars in the most energy-efficient manner with a minimum of energy loss (~8 percent) due to conversion. The cost of storing electricity in an electric vehicle’s battery via the associated Blink charging station is $1 for each hour the car is charging. Given that up to 6.5 kWhr of electrical energy can transfer to the car battery in an hour, and an electric vehicle can move between 3 and 4 miles on a single kilowatt-hour of energy, the electric car could travel between 18 and 24 miles for each dollar. That’s an energy cost roughly 1/3 the current retail price of gasoline, but without any air pollution.

While the SDG&E system is capable of rapidly exchanging and dispatching energy in ways too numerous for this column, suffice it to say: This is the “Super Smart Grid” incarnate. I think of it as a “Multi-Miracle Building Block” (MMBB) which can, if broadly deployed with sufficient renewable energy resources, facilitate a substantial elimination of the need to burn chemical fuels for transportation or to power the electric grid. That, in turn, will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution.

History will record this event as pivotal in our urgently needed progress toward efficiently harnessing wind and solar energy as the principle source underpinning all exogenous energy used by society for home, industry, transportation and vital services such as pumping water – something which requires roughly 30 percent of all electricity consumed in California.

Thanks are due to Mayor Sanders for his stalwart support and assistance in clearing away myriad red tape and artificial legal barriers, thus encouraging a more rapid deployment of the 100 kW solar PV charging station. Even still, the project took 18 months, of which a mere 3 involved actual construction. It is abundantly evident that there is a need to dramatically reduce or eliminate long review processes associated with such projects, and that reduction should be a top priority of all public policymakers at every level of government.

San Diegans can rightly be proud of what SDG&E is doing and we should support it with a sense of urgency, determination and resolve. Let’s give a new meaning to the phrase: “we’re burning daylight!”

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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