It’s official: the “cash for clunkers” automobile rebate program came to a close yesterday.  But did the government act too soon?  While the removal of older and less fuel-efficient vehicles gave a much needed boost to the car industry and the economy in general, it’s only natural to wonder if trade-in incentives will be offered again when the environmental benefits will be even greater.  When will this occur?  With the introduction of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, commonly referred to as PHEVs.

Current hybrid models, such as the Toyota Prius, rely on gasoline to charge the hybrid battery.  PHEVs, on the other hand, gain their primary source of propulsion power directly from the electricity grid.  A useful primer on PHEV technology is available here.  The first PHEV anticipated to hit the U.S. market, slated for mass production in November 2010, is General Motor’s Volt.  Drivers will be able to fully charge the vehicle from a standard home outlet (110 volt) in 6.5 hours, and halve the charging time when using a 220 volt line.

So what does this electrification of transportation mean for solar?  First, energy nerds are dreaming up ways to charge the vehicles with renewable and decentralized power, aka solar energy.  With photovoltaic panels on a homeowner’s rooftop or access to a solar parking garage at work or while running errands, solar enthusiasts are confident that PHEVs will expand solar market possibilities.

Skeptics are concerned, however, that the connection of PHEVs to the grid will increase electric demand too much, endangering grid reliability and raising electricity prices.  So the question is: how much power would each PHEV drain from the grid? According to a study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute, the average PHEV will draw only about 1.4 to 2 kW of power while charging – equivalent to that of a dishwasher. And the DOE’s Annual Energy Outlook 2009 found that a growth in electricity demand would only increase by .1% for every one million PHEVs on the road.  An increase that could indeed be met by distributed solar.

With the implementation of smart grid technologies, PHEVs will also be able to act as mini-distributed energy storage devices.  Known as vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, this concept is likeley to win support from utilities as it has the potential to provide them an extra layer of grid support.  For example, after a vehicle’s battery is charged, the utility (or even the homeowner) may be able to directly withdraw power from the car battery in order to meet peak demand, acting as a greener alternative to firing up a peaker plant.  The vehicle, in essence, could be an auxiliary service to the grid, increasing the network in both efficiency and reliability.  It’s also great news for solar energy, as the electricity to charge the battery at home has to come from somewhere.  Why not solar?

Here at GetSolar, we’ll be sure to keep our eye on the nascent plug-in hybrid electric vehicle marketplace.  We believe it has the possibility to spice up the solar market and expand it with new and exciting operations and services, like solar garages.