VERGE SF 2013: How can electric companies benefit from EVs?

VERGE SF 2013: How can electric companies benefit from EVs?

Ford Focus electric charging image via Ford

SAN FRANCISCO -- Demand response and net metering programs are growing, allowing utilities to reduce customer energy use during peak times and letting people sell back energy they generate to utilities. What role will electric vehicles play?

For now, the immediate impact will be seen at workplace charging stations. This could spread when consumers' EVs get charged, while making the charging of corporate electric fleets more efficient and helpful for the grid, according to panelists at VERGE SF discussing "The Role of Vehicles in Demand Response."

EVs need about four hours to fully charge, but most people don't fully deplete their cars right before plugging them in, said Ron Mahabir, CEO of Greenlots. The company supplies hardware, open standard software and support for charging networks.

By making it easy for people to charge their vehicles multiple times a day -- and if companies optimize their fleet charging -- those vehicles can be charged more slowly, lessening demand spikes.

Daytime charging also provides a more useful time for demand response programs for EVs to happen, said Mike Tinskey, Ford's director of global vehicle electrification and infrastructure. 

Most EV owners charge their vehicles at night when energy is cheapest. However, utilities typically don't need to use demand response at night. They need to shut off customers' energy-hogging equipment -- typically air conditioning -- in the middle of the day.

As more companies add EV charging stations to their campuses, that offers more opportunities both to charge during the day and also take advantage of demand response needs.

Let's make a deal

EV owners can expect to eventually choose among demand response programs from vehicle manufactures, utilities or third-party energy aggregators.

"Your utility is potentially in a better position to give you a better deal," said Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation and energy storage for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Most utilities already run demand response programs, and they are moving into doing two-way communication through those systems to make them more effective, he said.

Mahabir disagrees, feeling that third-party companies that are bringing together possibly larger loads of energy from more places could serve customers better.

"There needs to be an aggregator in the middle to offer savings to consumer," he said.

Energy for sale

Through it all, grid storage will be key to the future of utilities, Mahabir said.

"The grid is old, it's getting less reliable and the average transmitter is 44 years old," he said. "We're adding all this renewable capacity, solar, wind." And that adds another variability to an unstable environment.

Electric vehicles could integrate into the grid somewhat like the model of AirBNB. Just as people rent out their homes or apartments when they don't need then, people could "rent" out the energy in their EVs when they aren't using them.

That kind of program could mirror net metering, in which customers who have renewable energy systems sell excess energy to the grid.

While there is the possibility that EV owners could sell the energy stored in their vehicles back to utilities, Mahabir said that brings up liability issues. Imagine, for example, if someone has an emergency in the middle of the night and needs to go to a hospital, but their vehicle's battery is depleted because they had agreed to sell it to their utility.

Hurdles in the way

Another challenge will be the increasing energy demands that rise up as more EVs are sold.

Ford, for example, has seen more than a 300 percent increase in its hybrid and electric sales, said Tinskey of Ford, with total sales between 60,000 to 70,000 units.

While we aren't anywhere near it yet, said Duvall of EPRI, a "fully electrified society" with wider adoption of EVs would increase the United States' energy consumption by about 10 percent.

"The electricity system is enormous, so 10 percent of a big number is a big number. But it can be done," he said. "The utility industry is very interested in electric vehicles."

Ford Focus electric charging image via Ford