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Plugging electric cars in Spain to support wind

Building adequate transmission capacity to take wind power to customers is so problematic that Spain's government, its grid operator and the wind industry believe that plug-in electric cars could serve as a giant battery for green power that cannot be got to market. Others say electric cars will mainly serve as a store for excess nuclear generation and slow needed investment in the grid to accommodate more wind power

Plugging electric cars in Spain to support wind

Spain's electricity sector is abuzz over electric vehicles -- and that is no less true in the wind industry, which is busy considering the potential for plug-in cars to help balance unpredicted surges in wind power by offering their batteries up as a storage medium. Discussions reached a peak last month, after the Spanish grid operator pulled the plug on thousands of megawatt of wind power during a storm (Windpower Monthly, December 2008).

Spain's industry minister, Miguel Sebastian, says he wants one million plug-in hybrid cars, which are able to run on both conventional fuel and electricity, and purely electric cars on Spanish roads by 2014 -- five years ahead of Germany's plans for one million plug-ins too (previous story). The Spanish wind association, Asociación Empresarial Eólica (AEE), has responded by launching an 18-month research project, together with transmission system operator Red Eléctrica de España (REE), to assess how wide-scale use of electric cars would affect regulation of wind power on the grid.

The study's findings are not due until March, but the association's Alberto Ceña says a national electric vehicle fleet could boost the demand curve during late-night hours when most wind power is produced. REE has voiced similar views and the Spanish press believes electric cars are a means of preventing waste of clean, inexpensive power. Others, however, warn that electric cars are simply growing the market for nuclear and fossil fuel plant. At times of low wind production, these will be needed to feed the grid. On summer nights, national wind production can fall below 100 MW from a peak of more than 7 GW on windy days.

Equally as problematic for the environment, adding demand from electric vehicles will keep thermal power online that wind power should be replacing if adequate transmission capacity was built to get wind production to load centres. Electric cars could remove the imperative to adapt the grid network for taking more wind power, sceptics fear. AEE and REE insist, however, that new interconnection will remain a priority. The problem is that progress on stringing new wires will be slow because of public concerns over environmental impact. "So every bit extra in balancing the system helps," says Ceña.

Proponents of electric cars say there are added benefits. Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, which is conducting the study on the impact of electric cars on the grid for AEE and REE, has released a preliminary report saying that for every fossil-fuel car replaced by an electric car, net carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced -- even if all the power used by the plug-in cars derives from thermal generation. That, says the firm, is because electric motors are more efficient converters of energy than the internal combustion engine.

But cleaning the environment is not Spain's only motivation for introducing electric cars. The country wants to attract the multinational corporations preparing to mass-produce the vehicles. After threats by Nissan-Renault to close existing car factories in Spain, Sebastian has made a bid to keep manufacturing jobs at home by persuading the company to join a government study on the viability of switching part of production to electric cars. He is trying to do the same with PSA Peugeot Citroën.

Meanwhile, wind giant Iberdrola has joined up in a research project with US auto manufacturer General Motors, a contender to lead the electric car race. The two companies will weigh up the infrastructure needs for electric cars, from power lines to home power installations.

Whether or not electric cars ever prove beneficial to the wind industry, the autos are revving up to speed down Spain's highways before long.

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