Far From A Burdon, Electric Vehicles Will Assist The Grid

As electric vehicles have slowly began to transition to the mainstream, some have worried about their impact on the electric grid.  As more real world use data becomes available, it’s looking more and more like those concerns were over blown.  This leads to the next question, since EV’s are not quite the power grid burden we expected, can we somehow create a system that allows electric cars to benefit the larger power structure? This has become the next big endeavor for EV proponents, and up to this point, we are seeing a great deal of promise from emerging technologies.

The most promising of these is certainly vehicle to grid technology. Otherwise known as V2G, vehicle to grid presents a mechanism to meet key requirements of the electric power system by designating the EV’s to act as a form of demand response. When communicating with the power grid as an ancillary service, EV’s can provide frequency regulation by selling electricity through either delivering this power into the grid or throttling their charging rate. This can be looked at as a version of battery to grid power, but applied to vehicles.

In essence, when the grid requires more power to withstand a surge, that power will be tapped from EV’s, rather than traditional power plants. Considering that a car is parked, on average, 95% of the time, the flow of electricity to power lines could bring considerable value per car to utilities over the course of a year.

The key to realizing economic value from V2G is creating a symbiotic relationship with the larger power structure. Once the future smart grids are sophisticated enough to do this on a large scale basis, electric vehicles could help make the system even more reliable. Beyond ancillary services, the future of V2G also includes using the vehicles as a dispersed energy storage for intermittent, but renewable resources, such as wind and solar.

For this to happen though, EV batteries must improve, along with our centralized grid structure. V2G presents complications for the individual batteries, including degradation due to constant cycling, costs related to implementing bidirectional power flow capability (energy storage that can both feed and take power from the grid), metering issues, and complication related to energy guarantees The service life and reliability of batteries could be reduced under such strain, so drivers need an incentive to provide supplementary power to the grid.

Because of the cost premiums related to electric vehicle ownership and power systems interaction, lower EV operational expenses will be a major market driver for innovation and growth. Fortunately, with the gains we are making in energy storage tech, this will likely become less of an issue when V2G reaches the point where it becomes a viable, widescale option.

Electric vehicles are expected to make up close to 7% of all global automobile sales by 2020 (an estimated 6.6 million units sold in that year alone), so the future of EV is bright. Vehicle-to-grid is not only an important supplement to this growth, it is essential.

Along with the ability for technology to provide very fast regulation, it also contributes to environmental protection, system reliability, and oil independence. EV, combined with V2G technology, can provide a more seamless transition to the emerging sustainable energy economy, and by doing so, greatly increasing energy security benefits for the entire population.

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Data Shows Electric Vehicles Could Strain Electricity Grid

Home EV Charging StationReal world data taken from a Texas community shows that the habits of electric vehicle owners could pose a challenge for electricity providers.  The data collected is part of an ongoing study being conducted by Pecan Street, Inc. a research group based in Austin.  Pecan Street is seeking to understand how people will really manage their electric vehicles in the wild and to test the assumptions that have been made about how, when, and how often people will recharge their EV batteries.

To do this the company installed instruments to track the way people use their electricity within a planned community in Austin called Mueller.  The Mueller community makes a perfect test lab to study such things because it is a planned community built around a renewable energy and sustainability ethos.   The community is built from the start to maximize sustainability and incorporate smart grid technology and energy management systems.  Not surprisingly it has one of the highest concentrations of electric vehicle owners in the world.  Specifically, the Chevy Volt seems to be the car of choice in Mueller, with a few Nissan Leafs sprinkled in.

The study shows that, absent any incentive to do otherwise, people will default to the behavior that’s easiest and most convenient for them.  That means when they come home from work in the evenings they plug their cars in so that they will be charged and ready to go for the next morning.  The problem is that everyone, more or less, does this at the same time.  This also happens to correspond to the timeslot that is already a peak electricity usage time of day.  In Texas this is when air conditioners are working hardest.  It’s also when people are turning on televisions, dishwashers, washing machines, etc…

All of this simultaneous demand for electricity taxes the grid’s ability to produce enough power all at once to meet demand.  Not only does this make it more difficult for electric companies to keep up, but it also makes electricity rates go up because providers have to bring more expensive electricity into the mix.

Electricity is at it’s cheapest just a few hours later around midnight but people aren’t waiting until midnight to plug in their cars.   One important thing to note about the Mueller usage data is that there is no time based pricing currently in place.  This means no incentive for consumers to change their behavior.  It’s possible that by pricing their electricity more in line with the actual wholesale price of electricity throughout the day people would shift their car charging to later in the evening when electricity rates might fall substantially.

The sample size for the study is quite small but so far the result have be in line with expectation about when people will charge their electric vehicles.  If electric vehicle usage continues to expand, it could case more growing pains for the Texas electricity grid that is already expected struggle with meeting peak demand for power over the next few years. 

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