Why EVs are the smart grid's killer app

Why EVs are the smart grid's killer app

Electric vehicle plug image by Christian Delbert via Shutterstock.

Glazed over.

That’s how most people’s eyes look once you ask why electric vehicle and smart grid interoperability is important. With a little prompting, most will repeat what smart grid advocates have been trumpeting for years: things like “grid balancing,” “peak shifting” and “ancillary services.”

Yet there’s a more important reason, something touching both grid-connected EVs and the long-term future of the smart grid. A reason you are unlikely to hear from either consumers or engineers.

How to get them interested again

“You know that shiny thermostat by the ex-Apple guys?” is how I usually rescue my friends from smart grid-induced narcolepsy. (I'm talking about the Nest thermostat, of course.) The rapidity with which people "get" smart grid once it’s put in terms of useful, attractive and engaging consumer products reflects how much of an Internet-of-Things society we’ve ended up with. We don’t have jetpacks, sure, but we can let our thermostats learn our habits rather than go through laborious time-setting.

In other words, the “smart things” that matter these days are those networked objects and applications that are reaching into the day-to-day and impressing us with their cleverness (think the Nest thermostat’s presence detection), helpfulness (such as Google Now’s uncanny ability to anticipate your every informational need), or sheer beauty of design (anything out of Elon Musk’s factories, it seems).

If we want smart grid to matter -- and truly reach its potential -- we must think in the same way. And here is where the connected EV comes in: It will be the most important smart grid-enabled appliance that most people will see and use every day. Even the Nest, with its gorgeous touch screen and sophisticated engineering, doesn’t have this kind of pull. It’s how most people will understand, appreciate and engage with the grid: the EV brings the nebulous “smart grid” home.

No other grid-connected device has this potential

But beyond being the energy consumer’s most conspicuous connection to the smart grid, the EV also happens to be the largest and smartest of the smart grid widgets that also yields tangible benefits to its owner and to society at large. Via networked charging ports and in-car telemetry, EVs can respond to signals from home automation and grid systems alike. Think, for example, of EVs acting as auxiliary power for increasingly frequent storm season blackouts. Or, imagine the EV automatically optimizing its charging schedule to participate in demand response, bringing in monthly checks for the home owner.

Suddenly, it all makes both material and financial sense: My neighborhood’s electricity went out, but I barely noticed; my vehicle’s battery helped balance the grid, and I got paid. But it’s not just about the individual. Think of a million EVs in seamless sync with a renewable intermittency signal, making the grid a better battery by buttressing drops in wind speed or, conversely, soaking up excess power that otherwise would idle renewable generation. No other smart grid consumer product has the same raw capacity to provide environmental value in this way.

Why the smart grid industry should care about all things EV

Ultimately, we in the smart grid community should care about things such as connected electric vehicles, not just because they’re potentially useful to system operations such as voltage support and renewables integration, but also for their role in mediating the ordinary consumer’s everyday connection to the smart grid.

We should care how EVs look, how well they’re engineered and whether they’re meeting user needs. We should care not because we want to placate wary consumers so we can get on with our engineering challenges in peace, nor because we feel the consumer needs “educating” about the real value of these upgrades, but because the smart grid achieves its real potential -- a powerful tool for operational savings -- when it is working in seamless harmony with millions of responsive, engaging and fundamentally useful smart devices.

The inventors of the Internet had no idea that one day every head on the subway would be bowed over a glowing screen, using their 4G network connections to check Twitter and share photos. Likewise, we have no idea what the smart grid truly will be capable of when hooked up to useful and engaging appliances and applications. Bill Gates once said he wanted to put a computer in every home; we should be saying the same thing about electric vehicles. Doing so no doubt would open up new realms of possibility for better grid operations, but also transform the smart grid from a side note in utility annual reports to a real and beneficial force in the lives of millions of people and society at large.

Editor's note: To learn more about electric vehicles, the smart grid and the convergence of sustainability and technology, be sure to check out VERGE SF Oct. 14-17.
This article originally appeared at Smart Grid News and is reprinted with permission. Electric vehicle plug image by Christian Delbert via Shutterstock.