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Driving Change

For a clean, resilient grid, look to EV infrastructure

Data will be the currency that underlies all vehicle-to-grid integration programs.

BMW & clean energy

Electric vehicle charging infrastructure could provide a major benefit — boosting both clean energy and resiliency — for the power grid.

On Monday, automaker BMW and northern California utility PG&E announced a new expanded program that could help incentivize 3,000 BMW drivers to shift the charging of their vehicles to times of day when clean energy (namely solar power) is abundant. The program could also nudge drivers to curb EV charging during times when the grid is really congested. 

"We see smart charging as a way to make EVs more sustainable," said Adam Langton, energy services manager for connected e-mobility for BMW of North America, in an interview with GreenBiz.

BMW previously offered two smaller pilot programs with PG&E and found that smart charging services paired with clean energy could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Northern California by 32 percent.

"Some customers were very motivated to use more clean energy for charging. Using digital tools, we can provide them with that clean energy," Langton said.

Some customers were very motivated to use more clean energy for charging.

While the latest effort is still just a pilot program right now, here are five reasons I think this initiative is particularly interesting:

Utilities and automakers need to collaborate. To build a grid — with an abundance of clean energy and electric vehicles — that operates well, utilities and automakers will need to create strong partnerships. Currently not many have these relationships in place.

BMW's Langton said this pilot is the only example he knows of where a utility is providing an automaker with clean energy generation projection data. I would think sharing this type of data would be extremely important and valuable to all players across the EV infrastructure and hardware ecosystem.

It's all about data. To enable this type of dynamic smart-charging ecosystem, the automakers, utilities, tech providers, charging companies and drivers need data to optimize the systems. They need clean energy projections, but also predictions about user behavior, dynamic electricity rates, weather prediction data, etc. Data will be the key — the currency — that underlies all of these programs.

Design experience will be required. The way these programs are designed, and taking into consideration how users drive and want to drive their EVs, will be extremely important in ensuring that drivers volunteer to take part in them. Negative experiences around programs being difficult to use, complicated, not flexible or just not worth the extra effort to be enrolled will greatly affect the rollout. The teams creating these programs need strong expertise in consumer behavior. 

This could be a stepping stone to V2G. Utilities and automakers need to get these smart-charging programs right in order to move to the next stage where they're looking at projects around enabling vehicle-to-grid capabilities. That's where EVs can discharge electricity back onto the power grid in an exchange with utilities. V2G has long been overhyped and underdeployed, but to kick it into the next gear will require these smart charging baby steps first. 

This is a big year for infrastructure. These types of EV smart-charging pilot programs will become even more important as the federal government is expected to spend potentially trillions of dollars on a stimulus plan this year that could include $1 trillion for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rails, EV charging and grid gear. Getting the steps right on a micro-level — 3,000 EV drivers in California — will help inform how and where EV infrastructure spending should be deployed. 

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