In the accelerated pace of electrifying transport, a major obstacle always comes to the fore: the grid.
How will the electric grid handle so many vehicles being charged at once? Especially when fast-charging stations consume a lot of power? These are valid questions, and often require utilities to make improvements to the grid before critical charging infrastructure can be installed.
But there is an opportunity on the other side of this equation: a world in which electric vehicles can actually help make the grid more resilient, and make electricity cheaper for all.
“Electric vehicles are already benefiting the grid to a great extent,” said Miles Muller, an advocate for the climate and clean energy program at NRDC. “We’re really only scratching the surface at the moment.”
Mueller shared his thoughts with a panel of experts moderated by GreenBiz senior transportation analyst Katie Fehrenbacher at the Verge Electrify conference last week. The general consensus among industry and public sector leaders is that electric vehicles could indeed be an important part in building a reliable and renewable grid of the future – if technology and consumer attitudes keep up.
The first step is to optimize charging
The most basic way to align EVs with the grid is simply to charge at a more optimal time. Most electric vehicles, especially when they’re plugged in at home, need only a few hours to charge, but they’re parked and connected to a charger for longer than that.
“Our vision is that you can use the flexibility in an individual’s charging needs to benefit the grid,” said Adam Langton, energy services manager for BMW North America.
through this charge forward program, Langton’s team at BMW has shown that charging can be combined with off-peak hours – reducing stress on the grid – and even at times when renewable energy is most abundant. – Reducing the carbon footprint of charging.
“You can move a lot of electric vehicle charging to line up with that time,” Langton said. Optimal charging times vary by location, but demand is usually less in the morning or in the middle of the night.
Langton said the key to making this work for drivers, however, is making sure that no matter how charging times are shifted, drivers will always be awake to a fully charged battery, with no impact on their mobility.
An Ambitious Goal: Vehicle to Grid
Changing a vehicle’s charging time can do a lot to level the supply and demand on the grid. But electric vehicles can actually provide even greater benefits by sending electricity back to the grid during peak hours.
Charles Post, manager of energy storage strategy implementation at VGI and load management for PG&E, sees electric vehicles as “batteries on wheels” that can fill the gap when renewable energy generation on the grid is low.
A world in which electric vehicles really do help make the grid more resilient, and make electricity cheaper for all.
It can work in two ways. In one scenario, a fully charged car plugged into a home outlet can directly help with electrical appliances and energy needs in the case of a power outage or grid overload in that home. Or, the vehicle’s battery can send power directly to the grid, driving the meter backwards the same way solar panels do with additional power.
“There’s a whole bevy of opportunities out there, and it’s really deciding which one makes sense,” Post said.
A few key questions remain: What will customers be comfortable with? What can current charging technology handle? And how will the grid need to change to handle the discharge of energy from electric vehicles?
Automakers are already racing towards a future that will require answers. In Ford F-150 Lightning announced Ford teased the vehicle’s ability to power a home in case of a grid outage — a fully electric pickup truck.
“It pushes us more to address those questions,” Langton said.
overtaking the pilots
With many of these advances in EV technology the temptation has been to start small and run pilots before jumping in headfirst. But Post, Langton and Muller agreed that the time had passed for the pilots.
“We really need a lot of real-world data, we don’t need any more white papers at this point in time,” Muller said.
The process of realizing these visions is complex. Jill Anderson, Southern California Edison’s senior vice president of customer service, said the utility is trying to strike a balance on building the right amount of infrastructure just one step ahead of customers’ need. Build too much charging infrastructure, and suddenly the cost of maintaining it drives up the price of electricity for everyone. But build too little, and the utility could become a snag in electrification.
That’s why strategies like optimized charging times – which reduce the overall need at peak hours – will allow more people to transition to electric vehicles without increasing the grid or spiking costs.
“When more people are using electricity everyone benefits, so it should reduce costs in the long run,” Anderson said.
For that benefit to be massive, customers will need to adopt electric vehicles en masse. Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs and sustainability for Audi, says it will only happen if we work on some of the current charging challenges.
“How do we create a delightful experience? It must be better than refueling a gas car,” Reeder said.
But with the charging infrastructure and grid rapidly evolving, customers may have to roll with the changes – pleasurable or not.
“Our most precious resource is time, so let’s make sure we don’t make the enemy of the good perfect,” Anderson said.
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