In the power grid, supply and demand need to match exactly. If consumers demand more power than producers can supply, or if producers provide more power than consumers need, the result can be rolling blackouts.
Power producers usually keep turbines spinning at a few offline plants, so they can ramp up production if demand spikes. Or they maintain coal-fueled backup generators that can be fired up quickly. But these approaches are either costly, polluting, or both.
In theory, the grid could employ a battery to keep supply and demand in balance, but existing battery technologies offer no cost savings over power production. In a new paper, however, MIT researchers argue that “smart appliances” in homes and offices, such as thermostats that can be adjusted remotely and electric cars that plug into the grid, could, collectively, act as a massive battery, offering a lower-cost, lower-emission alternative to backup power generation in the grid.
Getting power producers to trust that virtual battery, however, requires rigorously quantifying its capacity and charge and discharge rates. In the paper, the researchers take some initial steps in that direction.
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