A Light Bulb Goes On

A Light Bulb Goes On

Willett Kempton sees your car–and the electric grid–as a solution to America’s energy problem, not the source of it.

Lawmakers in Washington want to solve America’s pollution and energy problems by imposing higher fuel economy standards on automobiles. Willett Kempton has a more exotic approach: turn cars into rolling power stations that can provide clean energy when utilities need it most.

Kempton, a wiry, 59-year-old renewable energy professor at the University of Delaware with round, wire-rimmed glasses and a shock of white hair, is the nation’s foremost proponent of what’s known as vehicle-to-grid technology. For ten years he’s been trying to convince utilities and automakers that electric cars could draw power at night, when power is cheaper, and then discharge some of that juice back into the grid during the day to balance supply and demand for electricity. Kempton’s theory is beginning to win applause from some car and utility folks, but daunting technical and economic obstacles make it a tough sell.

Kempton argues his idea doesn’t have to wait for cheaper batteries, the main stumbling block to production of electric vehicles. He’s got a way, he says, for owners of electric cars to recoup the cost of even very expensive batteries, the ones with price tags in the $20,000 range. It involves using cars to supply a reserve of electric power that can smooth out minute-to-minute shortages in the transmission grid.

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