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What if our cars could help save the environment?

March 30, 2016

smart-gridWhat if our cars could help save the environment?

At the next STEM Café, “Renewable Nation: How Hybrid Cars and Smart Grids Will Change America,” NIU assistant professor Kevin Martin will explain how technology could transform vehicles from gas guzzlers into key components of a smarter, more sustainable power system.

The free talk and discussion will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, in the Novak Room at Fatty’s Pub and Grille, 1312 W. Lincoln Hwy. in DeKalb.

“One of the biggest obstacles for alternative energy sources right now is the difficulty of storing the electricity they generate,” says Martin, who teaches in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

He points to wind power as an example: “Maybe you have a really windy night, so your turbines are blowing like crazy. But it’s nighttime, so electricity demand is low, and a lot of that energy just gets wasted.”

That’s where cars come in. As battery-powered cars become more popular, and plug-in technology links those cars to the power grid, we will be able to use our batteries as nodes on a massively distributed electricity storage and distribution system. The key ingredient is a “smart grid” that puts power sources and devices (such as houses and cars) in constant real-time communication.

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin

“If each electric car can draw power from the grid and send power back, and all the devices on the grid are talking to each other, all sorts of powerful changes become possible,” Martin says. “Our cars can store extra power as it became available – on a windy night, say – and upload it back to the grid when it’s needed somewhere else. With all that extra storage available, sitting all over the country in our driveways and parking lots, renewable energy sources will become less wasteful and more feasible.”

In addition to describing what the smart grid will look like, Martin will explain the many technological shifts required to make it a reality. For starters, programmers will have to write algorithms that automatically determine the optimal distribution of stored power.

“Otherwise,” says Martin, “you could get in your car after work and find out all your power had been given away during the day.”

But if the challenges can be met, the impact could be massive. Sixty percent of carbon-dioxide emissions come from either electricity generation or transportation. The smart grid would slash those numbers, not just by making renewable energy more feasible, but also by encouraging the use of cars that don’t burn fossil fuels.

“We’re used to thinking of cars primarily in terms of the toll they take on the environment,” says NIU STEM Outreach associate Judith Dymond. “Professor Martin’s research suggests another possibility: that cars are the missing link on the way to a greener, more sustainable planet.”

This event is part of STEM Outreach’s series of monthly STEM Cafés, all of which are free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be available for purchase from Fatty’s.

For more information on STEM Cafés and other STEM events, call (815) 753-4751 or email [email protected].