GE's Charge Toward the Smart Grid

GE's Charge Toward the Smart Grid

As Yves Behar designed GE's charging station for electric vehicles, he envisioned a form that was "as far away as possible" from a gas station pump. Instead of a square, bulky shape, he strove for a sleek silhouette.

The code name for the project was Bloom, and Behar's goal was to create a functional and efficient device that is attractive, distinctive and, most importantly, "integrates with the urban landscape," he said.

The charging station Behar delivered does just that said General Electric's Mike Mahon. "It's a very functional design and very elegant," said Mahon.

The device, now called the GE WattStation, stands just under four-and-a-half feet tall in a column reminiscent of a plant stem. The column flares as it rises and is topped by an circular display surface the size and shape of an inverted dinner plate.

According to GE, it will deliver one of the faster, full charges available by cutting charging time to as little as four to eight hours, compared to 12 to 18 hours.

The WattStation made its debut Tuesday in San Francisco, where the company presented its latest initiative and products to convert the existing electrical grid -- premised on 19th century technology and business models -- into a digital energy network to serve the needs of the 21st century and beyond.

NucleusIn addition to the WattStation, GE took the wraps off its home energy management device called the Nucleus. The company also announced its $200 million Ecomagination Challenge. The innovation competition funded by GE and four venture capital firms is intended to catapult the best ideas for advancing the smart grid from concept or early stage to large-scale commercialization. (GreenBiz.com coverage of the Ecomagination Challenge is available here.)

GE wants to be a leader in providing the products that will help power the future. In addition to development of its own products, the world's largest industrial company is increasingly interested in the development of cleantech energy products outside the company. The digital energy space currently represents a $2 billion market for GE and a $15 billion to $20 billion market overall, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said Tuesday. The market is forecast to grow to some $110 billion by 2030, and smart companies and investors will position themselves now to take advantage of that growth, he said.

Yesterday's presentation demonstrated GE's efforts to do so:

  • The firm is "doubling down," Immelt said, on its R&D investments for ecomagination, the product line designed to deliver high performance, increased energy efficiency and sharply reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The company has invested $5 billion in ecomagination R&D since its inception in 2005. It has committed to investing another $10 billion in the coming five years.
  • Launched with 17 products, the ecomagination portfolio now includes more than 90. In the next 24 months, about 30 other products will be added to the roster, Immelt said.
  • GE Energy Financial Services now holds $23 billion in energy-related investments worldwide. Last October, the head of the unit talked with GreenBiz Senior Writer Marc Gunther about how and where GE is placing its cleantech bets. GE upped that ante yesterday in announcing the innovation challenge, its commitment to provide half the capital for the fund and its aim of providing a guiding hand and a "commercial relationship" to competition winners.
  • The introduction of the WattStation, through the ecomagination line, and the Nucleus, through GE Appliances & Lighting, illustrate the company's push to make its products integral in people's daily routines as the smart grid develops.

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[Editor's Note: This page updated to reflect SmartSynch's completion of its pilot project with a Southwest utility.]

Growth of the electric vehicle market, increased adoption of smart metering and advancement of a digital energy network go hand-in-hand.

For electric vehicles and their care and feeding, providing an easy-to-learn, simple-to-handle charging device is key to a great experience, said Behar, the founder of fuseproject. "WattStation is designed as a small, soft and friendly dispenser of energy for electric vehicles," Behar said.

"It's easy to get along with," he added, referring to the experience anticipated for users and the municipalities, companies and property owners that set up charging stations.

A ring of LEDs around the rim of the display surface illuminates the device and its features. A swipe of a credit card releases the retractable hose bearing the electrical hookup. As the "nozzle" is attached to the vehicle, the LEDs turn red to indicate the car is charging. When the lights are green, the car is charged. Here is a video showing how the WattStation works:

Ideally, EV drivers will be able to locate the charging stations with apps in their vehicles or on their smart phones and make appointments to use them if necessary, Behar said.

In addition to its good looks, the device is designed to be robust, easy to maintain and tamper-resistant. The display model shown in San Francisco was chrome-colored with a matte finish and the column was made of heavy-duty plastic. Actual models would have a metal column whose color and finish could be customized.

The WattStation is targeted for a commercial release in 2011 with a price ranging from $3,000 to $7,000. About 20 will be installed in a pilot test at Purdue University, a leading recruiting ground for GE, and then at the University of California, San Diego, Mahon said.

The company plans to introduce a model for household use later this year. The device is expected to be somewhat smaller and be priced from $1,000 to $1,300. Smart metering is considered essential for any home-charging of EVs given that the best time to juice up the vehicles would be when the energy load is lightest and energy prices are cheapest -- data that's available from smart metering and the feedback of the data that the devices collect.

The Nucleus provides a way for homeowners to manage their energy consumption using a device that gives them better insight, convenience and control of energy use in the home and smart household appliances, says Dave McCalpin, GE's GM of Home Energy Management.

Designed to work with smart meters and the GE Brillion suite of smart appliances, the Nucleus enables data to be collected from the meters and the appliances -- and for users to tap into the information using their personal computers, laptops or smart phones.

The Nucleus is expected to hit the market in 2011 and sell for $149 to $199. The GE also expects to sell an adaptor-like device to use on appliances, such as a refrigerator, that don't have smart technology so users can obtain basic information on how much energy is being used.

Campbell McCool, chief marketing office for smart grid tech firm SmartSynch, had a sanguine view of the day's developments as advancements in the digital energy arena can mean greater business opportunities for firms like his.

SmartSynch helps connect utilities to other devices on the grid by delivering real-time information on energy consumption using dedicated channels on existing cellular communication networks, rather than private network build-outs which has been favored by utilities. Texas-New Mexico Power has conducted a trial of 10,000 smart meters that integrate SmartSynch communication modules in a GE meter. The power company plans to install SmartSynch SmartMeters for its  231,000 business and residential customers in Texas during the next five years; the utility commission for the region is reviewing the proposal.

SmartSynch maintains that use of its technology and communications model provides coverage, bandwidth, security and affordability and as a plus, a nimbleness that enables a swifter response to new technology and upgrades, McCool said. Having worked with more than 100 North American utilities on deployments, the company is on a mission to convert more utilities to its business model.

Taking a long view of products such as the WattStation, McCool said, "Electric cars are one of the greatest drives of the smart grid. We look forward to the day when there'll be 8 million electric cars on the road."

Images courtesy of GE.