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A new love story: Electric vehicles and the electric grid

Electric cars are coming and with them the promise of a better electric grid.

Car charging

The most basic way to align EVs with the grid is simply to charge at more optimal times.


In the accelerating push to electrify transportation, one big obstacle always comes up: The grid.

How will the electrical grid handle so many vehicles charging at once? Especially when fast-charging stations gulp down prodigious amounts of power? These are valid questions, and often utilities need to make improvements to the grid before installing significant charging infrastructure.

But on the other side of this equation is an opportunity: A world in which electric vehicles actually help make the grid more resilient, and render electricity cheaper for everyone.

"Electric vehicles are already benefiting the grid to a large extent," said Miles Muller, attorney for the climate and clean energy program at NRDC. "We’re really just scratching the surface at the moment." 

Muller shared his thoughts alongside a panel of experts, moderated by GreenBiz senior transportation analyst Katie Fehrenbacher, at the VERGE Electrify conference last week. The consensus among leaders from industry and the public sector is that electric vehicles may actually be a key piece in creating 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 more optimal times. Most electric vehicles, especially when they’re plugged in at home, only need a few hours to charge, but are parked and connected to the charger for much longer than that.

"Our vision is that you can use the flexibility in a person's charging needs to benefit the grid," said Adam Langton, energy services manager for BMW North America.

Through its ChargeForward program, Langton’s team at BMW has shown that charging can be aligned to off-peak hours — reducing strain on the grid — and even times when renewable energy is most abundant — reducing the carbon footprint of charging.

"You can shift a lot of the electric vehicle charging to line up with those times," Langton said. Optimal charging times vary by location, but demand is generally lower in the mornings or in the middle of the night.

The key to making this work for drivers, however, is ensuring that no matter how the charging times are shifted, drivers always will wake up to a fully charged battery with no impact on their mobility, Langton said.

An ambitious goal: Vehicle to grid

Shifting vehicle charging times can do a lot to level out supply and demand on the grid. But electrical vehicles could provide even more benefit by actually sending power back to the grid during peak hours.

Charles Post, manager for energy storage strategy implementation at VGI and load management for PG&E, sees electric vehicles as "batteries on wheels" that can fill gaps when renewable energy generation on the grid is lower.

A world in which electric vehicles actually help make the grid more resilient, and render electricity cheaper for everyone.

It could work in a couple of ways. In one scenario, a fully charged car plugged into a household outlet could help power appliances and energy needs directly in that home in the case of a power outage or grid overload. Or, the vehicle’s battery could send power directly back to the grid, running the meter backward in the way that solar panels do with excess power.

"There’s a whole bevy of opportunities out there, and it's really deciding which ones make sense," Post said. 

Some 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 energy discharges from electric vehicles?

Automakers are already racing toward a future that will require answers. In its announcement of the Ford F-150 Lightning — a fully electric pickup truck — Ford teased the vehicle's ability to power a household in the case of grid outages.

"It gives us more of a push to start addressing those questions," Langton said.

Moving beyond pilots

The temptation with many of these advances in EV technology has been to start small and run pilots before jumping in headfirst. But Post, Langton and Muller agreed that the time has passed for pilots.

"We really just need much more of the real-world data, we don’t need any more white papers at this point," Muller said.

The process of making these visions a reality is complicated. Jill Anderson, senior vice president, customer service for Southern California Edison, said the utility is trying to strike a balance on building the right amount of infrastructure, just one step ahead of what customers need. Build too much charging infrastructure, and suddenly the cost of maintaining it raises the price of electricity for everyone. But build too little, and the utility could become a roadblock in electrification. 

That’s why strategies such as optimized charging times — which reduce the overall need at peak hours — will allow more people to transition to electric vehicles without overwhelming the grid or spiking costs.

"Everyone benefits when more people are using electricity, so it should lower the cost long term," Anderson said.

For that benefit to take place at scale, customers will need to adopt electric vehicles en masse. Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs and sustainability for Audi, says that will happen only if we work out some of the current challenges of charging.

"How do we create a delightful experience? It should be better than refueling a gas car," Reeder said.

But with charging infrastructure and the grid evolving rapidly, customers might have to roll with the changes — delightful or not. 

"Our most precious resource is time, so let’s make sure we don't make perfect the enemy of the good enough," Anderson said.

[Missed VERGE Electrify? Catch up by reading our coverage of the event]

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