Plug-In Cars Meet Smart Grid, Courtesy of OnStar, Comverge

General Motors (s GM) has been talking for years about using its OnStar system to hook up the plug-in Chevy Volt to the smart grid. This week it gave a peek into how that might happen in partnership with Comverge (s COMV), using the demand response company’s software to show how utilities could monitor and control when and how the Volt charges up.

Think of it as the latest link between utilities and the plug-in cars that are expected to be one of their major power loads in the coming years. Earlier this week, Cisco (s CSCO) and car charging startup ECOtality announced a research partnership to link home energy management to garage plug-in car chargers. General Electric (s GE) is making both home energy management systems and car charging stations, and smart grid networking and home energy management startup Silver Spring Networks is working with ClipperCreek on electric car charging.

Comverge CEO R. Blake Young wouldn’t say if the company’s work with GM, unveiled Tuesday at the DistribuTECH smart grid show in San Diego, might lead to a Comverge-OnStar combo product or service later on. But with millions of plug-in vehicles expected to hit the market in the coming decade, utilities are under the gun to get connected to them or face the potential for those cars to overwhelm the grid with their power needs.

The idea behind the Comverge-OnStar demo, is to show how Volt owners could program their OnStar systems to charge, or not, based on variable electricity rates communicated via Comverge’s IntelliSOURCE software. While most utilities don’t yet charge residential customers different rates during the day based on peak loads or other factors, “The ability to track and offer variable pricing is ultimately going to be cascading to people who have electric vehicles,” Young said. Utilities, in turn, could measure how much power plug-in cars are drawing from the grid, and potentially control that charging to avoid overloading demand, he said.

GM and Comverge have been working on integrating OnStar and IntelliSOURCE for some time, Young added, and the Norcross, Ga.-based company has been experimenting with car charging management with other partners, including smart meter maker Itron (s ITRI) in a pilot with Michigan utility DTE Energy and with utility Pepco and other partners in Delaware.

There’s certainly an opportunity for technologies that can deliver on utilities’ need for reliable management of car charging. In a report published at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), Pike Research predicts that software and equipment for intelligent EV charging management will grow to a $297 million industry in the United States by 2015, or about 3.3 percent of overall U.S. smart grid spending. Globally, that EV management business could grow from $383 million today to $1.5 billion by 2015, Pike predicts.

The smart grid link to plug-in cars could also come through cellular providers. Sprint (s FON) connects ECOtality’s Blink charging stations, and Nissan (s NSANY) has turned to AT&T (s T) to link the digital systems of its all-electric Leaf sedans to do things like find charging stations. Both are potential routes for connecting cars to utilities.

No matter how the connections are made, they’ll need to include two-way, real-time communication to be valuable to utilities, Young said. Comverge also announced on Tuesday new features for its IntelliSOURCE software platform and supporting hardware. Those include the ability to manage variable pricing and to avoid the “artificial peak” that can come when lots of devices are powered down to avoid overloading the grid, only to come on later on to create an unforeseen, new peak in power demand.

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Image courtesy of Cletch via Creative Commons license.