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Driving Change

Vehicle-to-grid pilots soar, but where will they land?

Bidirectional charging is needed for a stable grid, but its ability to scale is trapped in the pilot stage.

Electric car and house charging with renewable power

Image via Shutterstock/petovarga

Vehicle-to-grid integration (VGI) could be the most exciting and transformational aspect of the EV transition, but its ability to scale is stuck in the pilot stage.

For the uninitiated, here’s some background on the types of VGI, including managed and bidirectional charging. GreenBiz has extensive coverage on all things vehicle-to-grid (V2G), vehicle-to-home (V2H) and vehicle-to-load (V2L). 

There’s no denying that, since 2019, the number of pilot programs has grown from a trickle to a mighty stream. Notable programs include a partnership between PG&E and BMW; several school bus pilots; Fermata’s Boulder, Colorado pilot; Ford and Duke Energy; and Revel, NineDot and Fermata in New York City

Testing this technology could not come soon enough. As climate change causes catastrophic weather events that leave communities without power, the batteries in cars could provide grid resiliency as backup. Additionally, fully integrated fleets, both consumer and commercial, could provide battery storage for renewable energy that will help reduce reliance on polluting power generation.

These facts were highlighted at the California Climate Policy Summit in mid-April. Here participants discussed a California bill (Senate Bill 233) that would require most new EVs and chargers sold in the state to have bidirectional charging capability by 2027. Siva Gunda, vice chair of the California Energy Commission, which oversees EV charging infrastructure, called bidirectional charging a "silver bullet" for cleaning up the grid during extreme heat events. 

But currently, grid-discharging bidirectional charging is trapped at the pilot stage. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the widespread use of individually owned vehicles discharging power to the grid. Even the largest EV manufacturer in the U.S., Tesla, hedged on providing bidirectional capacity by 2025. Experts, investors and utilities appear to have settled on school bus fleets as the best use case for V2G, for now. And fleet operators are overwhelmed with the arduous task of electrifying to anticipate advances in V2G technology.

So where does this leave us? V2H and V2L (think refrigerator or power tools) are relatively easier than V2G, but currently V2H capacity, in particular, requires expensive equipment. For instance, Ford is beginning to tout its bidirectional capability. But as my colleague Vartan Badalian noted, the Ford F-150 Lightning provides direct current (DC) power for bidirectional charging, requiring consumers to purchase a $5,000 setup including the Ford Charge Station Pro and a Ford Home Integration System to convert the power from DC to alternating current (AC) for home use.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the widespread use of individually owned vehicles discharging power to the grid. Even the largest EV manufacturer in the U.S., Tesla, hedged on providing bidirectional capacity by 2025.

One company that has seized the opportunity to bypass branded, OEM-specific bidirectional charging is dcbel.

The San Mateo, California-based dcbel offers the "world's first affordable and universal bidirectional EV charger," according to the website. I spoke with John Sarter, West Coast onboarding and support lead for dcbel, at the recent climate policy summit in Sacramento where he demonstrated the product. In an email Sarter dove into more detail about the charger:

"It will partner with and support any EV for bidirectional charging. It is also a powerful solar inverter, allowing extremely fast DC direct charging and discharging of EV’s. Dcbel's software optimizes the sourcing of solar, grid and battery energy used within the home, saving money in the process, by using the EV as an energy asset to use at times of peak energy use when grid energy is expensive."

The idea of a universal bidirectional charging system sounds enticing. Although Sarter readily admits that currently, only an EV that is built to the CHAdeMO charging standard — the charging port standard developed by Japanese automakers — can perform bidirectional power flow. "Once the other existing standards including CCS [Combined Charging System] are formally revised, dcbel hardware can integrate the bidirectional charging protocol changes via an over the air update," Sarter said. He expects that to take place "by 2025 or sooner." That said, its product will soon be "the first of its kind to be UL certified." Once certified by Underwriters Laboratories, it will be available to order. It is available for pre-order starting at $4,999, similar in price to the Ford package. The company will begin shipping once the product is UL-certified, but the CCS bidirectional charging feature will require an over-the-air update after the CCS is revised.

Besides these technical and cost limitations, experts at GreenBiz’s VERGE Electrify 22 cited a lack of standardization as the key barrier to mass adoption of VGI. (This conference, now named "Electrify," will focus on transportation electrification and take place virtually Aug. 10). Pilot programs are built to a specific need for a specific utility. Once these pilots end, various utilities, regulators and states will have built a hodgepodge of rules and uses that — without standardization — will arrest advancement.

Then there is the persistent issue of rate design. Consumers — either individuals or fleet operators — need to understand how they will benefit. Sarter noted, "Utilities and energy aggregators need to work together to develop payment models that reward people for sending their EV energy back to the grid when it is most needed, at times of peak energy use." He cited California’s SB 233 as a potential way to spur collaboration. 

There are potential solutions to the V2G mess. Utilities are coming around to a couple of solutions for consumers using managed charging, a term that refers to stopping, starting or reducing the speed of an EV charging session. There are increasing levels of complexity to managed charging from simply setting a timer to begin a charge at a certain time, to allowing software to start, stop or slow charging based on electricity rates, grid conditions or other factors. For the purpose of a vehicle integrating with the grid, managed charging by grid operators or utilities typically requires a costly upgrade to a smart meter and depends on participation by a utility.

One way to avoid this is thorough software that allows managed charging that responds to grid conditions through a Level 2 smart charger. This would enable VGI without requiring a smart meter upgrade. Likewise, allowing the vehicle itself to participate in managed charging programs through its telematics would save consumers the costs of upgrading to a networked Level 2 smart charger. Both managed charging scenarios would allow the charging session to respond to grid conditions, saving consumers money while avoiding straining the grid. Pilot programs exist to test these concepts.

For barriers related to interconnection, especially at public charging plazas and fleet depots that require costly and time-consuming grid upgrades, allowing increased managed charging is also a solution. In this case the cost savings would come from avoiding utility work. For instance, if a depot needed 10 charging ports for its fleet but the site had the capacity to support only 8 ports, managed charging could allow the fleet to avoid building new infrastructure. Additionally, EDF’s new study found make-ready infrastructure can benefit utilities and fleet owners. These cost savings could include upgrades that will eventually support V2G.

But it remains to be seen if our fractured governments and ancient utility regulatory regime are capable of working together.

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