The Expanding Role of Electric Cars in Managing the Grid
The killer app in the EV movement might not be the vehicles themselves—but how they can play a crucial role in a smart electrical grid. A session focusing on “Demand Response” at this week’s VERGE SF conference, revealed how key players, such as Ford, Greenlots and EPRI, see the intersection of electric vehicles and smart grid technologies. The offshoot might mean that electric car owners could earn money, rather than pay money, for electric fuel.
The Smart Grid isn't just the smart meters being deployed around the country. It's a modernization of the electrical grid from dumb wires, to an information technology system that transports electricity. This means the electrical grid will shift from a pattern of centralized power generation—primarily burning fossil fuels—to a grid populated by a wide range of electrical generation plants, with a lot more renewable energy sources. The Smart Grid also opens the door to service providers performing services like demand response and frequency regulation—helping put or pull off energy from the grid at key times.
According to Mike Tinskey, associate director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford, grid services provided by an electric car could earn $200 to 300 per year for an owner. That’s in addition to savings in fuel cost and maintenance, all helping to erase an EV’s price premium.
Ready to Respond
Demand Response is a grid service that's already in wide use, primarily by businesses. It allows the electrical grid operator to, at peak demand times, send out a signal causing things like air conditioning units to shut down and thereby reduce load on the grid. Electric car charging stations—or communication systems on board the vehicle—could be built to respond to these signals. In exchange for being willing to pause a charging event, the rate paid for the electricity could be reduced.
Here’s the challenge: grid operators don't want to deal with demand response agreements with individuals. Instead, grid operators prefer entities that can guarantee at least 500 kilowatts of curtailment, according to Ron Mahabir, CEO of Greenlots. He said there needs to be “someone in the middle,” or what's called a Demand Response Aggregator, who signs up enough smaller demand response resources to create a much larger pool.
Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, said demand response is important on days when the electrical grid is stretched to its limit. He suggested that on-peak charging of a lot of EVs could undermine the energy and environmental benefits of electric cars. Duvall asked: “Are we better off charging on-peak on the hottest day of the summer, and build the infrastructure to match, or to burn gasoline [in cars] on those days?” Stronger incentives for off-peak charging are needed.
Vehicle to Grid or Home
Getting electricity to flow in a different direction, vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-home, are two other smart EV-related grid services that were discussed. Both services pull energy from the battery pack, and either power a house if the electricity is cut off, or help shore up the electrical grid when its capacity is being stretched.
This feature requires a new capability in electric cars, called bi-directional charging. The charging port and charging station would serve a dual purpose, to not only receive energy while charging but also send energy when the grid requests it. Such systems require an inverter to convert DC electricity from the battery pack to AC electricity required by the grid.
V2G and V2H technology is still in development, with several pilot projects attempting to demonstrate the possibilities. Commercialization is at least a few years away.
Meanwhile, Ford’s Tinskey described smart grid-enabled charging as “very useful” for electric vehicle fleets. A delivery truck fleet typically returns every night to a depot. Charging an entire fleet of trucks at the same time is a lot of simultaneous demand. But, by varying the charging of each truck, the electrical load can be managed so it doesn't get too high.
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