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Screen shot 2009-12-02 at 9.51.32 AMIn the research center of Tsukuba City, just outside Tokyo, the first real world vehicle and grid storage experiments are underway. A collaboration between Mazda, EnerDel and Th!nk Global among others, the project is one of the first to look at the synergy between solar power, grid storage, electric vehicles and the average customer.

The vehicles will be available through a Zipcar-like service. Based in the parking lots of Family Mart convenience stores, the facilities will also contain solar arrays, rapid charging stations and large-scale battery setups. The holy trinity of green energy: solar power, grid storage and electric vehicles, together at last.

The vehicle model in question will be called the Mazda2 (see left). It will use drive components designed by Norwegian EV company Th!nk, maker of the Th!nk City electric car. EnerDel is supplying the batteries — in this case, the same batteries that the Th!nk uses (the companies have had a partnership for a while). This is important. If the project used specially-designed battery packs in the vehicles, it would take some credibility out of the vehicle-as-storage concept being tested; one idea is to show that standard automotive battery packs can be used to store energy — that can also be sent back to the grid when not in use — without major modification.

For EnerDel, this is the second act in what looks like an early play at applying grid storage technology. With another storage experiment in Portland, EnerDel is positioning itself to be one of the first major battery makers in grid-scale storage. EnerDel is expecting grid storage to grow powerfully as electric cars are adopted over the next two years. If consumers come home and plug in at the same time, demand will spike far beyond current peak response capabilities. In order for this demand to to be manageable, either more energy needs to be made, or it needs to be reliably stored during off-peak times.

Scheduled to be operational by March 2010, the Mazda-EnerDel plan is for solar panels to steadily charge on-site batteries that will in turn charge the vehicles. The unique ability to use DC power throughout (the grid at large uses AC power), the system is said to make charge cars quickly. Notably missing from the plan is a provision to draw power from the vehicles and back into the grid. This will probably change once the first phase has been practically applied.

In Tsukuba, the batteries no longer fit for automotive use will be recycled and built into grid storage systems. This idea isn’t new, exactly. Companies like R2EV also include it in their long-term business plans.  The battery turnover in Tsukuba might be the first time it is done in real life, though.

This program in Japan could be the test that proves (or disproves) the viability of integrating electric vehicles, grid storage and solar panels — at least with current technology. In future tests, we will expect to see vehicles themselves used as storage.

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