In Boulder, Colorado, public utility company Xcel Energy recently teamed up with University of Colorado Chancellor Bud Peterson to conduct the first commercial tests of a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) plug-in hybrid automobile. The company donated a converted Ford Escape hybrid to Peterson to help pioneer a key piece of the "SmartCityProject," a long-term strategy to replace the country's outdated power grid with a smart grid, described by Xcel as:

an intelligent, auto-balancing, self-monitoring power grid that accepts any source of fuel (coal, sun, wind) and transforms it into a consumer's end use (heat, light, warm water) with minimal human intervention… It is a grid that has the ability to sense when a part of its system is overloaded and reroute power to reduce that overload and prevent a potential outage situation; a grid that enables real-time communication between the consumer and utility allowing us to optimize a consumer's energy usage based on environmental and/or price preferences.

The V2G hybrid would play an important role in this smart network: During hours of off-peak household energy usage (the nighttime, especially), the cars would take advantage of excess capacity in the system (especially with wind power, which often blows hardest at night) by charging up their batteries. Then, during hours of peak electricity use, the cars would discharge some of their energy back to the grid, to help supplement traditional energy sources and power households. This is no small deal: According to some studies, V2G technology could help reduce a city's dependence on central power generation facilities up to 20 percent by 2050. Xcel hopes to add a total of 500 V2G automobiles over the coming years to their startup project in the city. That is, of course, if they can convince an overburdened and debt-ridden federal government to help fund the way.

--James Martin