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Vehicle-to-Grid: The Next Frontier of Energy Storage

Since the dawn of the renewable energy revolution, utilities and clean energy advocates have viewed renewable energy technologies as a necessary but imperfect solution.  One of the biggest imperfections, was the variability of renewable energy generation, i.e., solar plants won’t produce efficiently when it’s cloudy, nor wind turbines when the air is still.  Even worse, any energy produced by these facilities in excess of the utilities’ immediate need, is generally just wasted and lost, since we have yet to find a cost efficient method of storing energy on a utility scale.  As a result, utilities are forced to plan around the variability, keeping one eye on the expected generation from the renewable facilities and one eye on their non-renewable plants at all times.  The result of this imperfect solution, is that unless a viable storage solution is produced, utilities cannot rely solely on renewables to provide base-load power.

The Possibility of Vehicle-to-Grid Storage

Several storage solutions have been proposed for dealing with this issue, however few have proven cost efficient or viable.  Last week however, the Los Angeles times posted a story describing an interesting new strategy being tested out by the University of Delaware.  As the story explains, the University of Delaware piloted a system by which plug-in electric vehicles acted as a distributed storage network, and could be called upon by the utility to return energy back into the grid on demand.  The vehicle owners, would then be paid for the energy sent to the grid during peak hours, and then during off peak the cars would once again be recharged until full. The times explains the benefits pretty succinctly:

The plan takes advantage of a key fact about cars: They spend most of their time parked. The technology makes idle vehicles a source of storage for utilities and cash for car owners… The technology could solve a potentially serious problem. The power grid, a massive tangle of power plants, transformers and thousands of miles of wire, needs to maintain a steady and balanced flow of power. Sudden surges threaten crashes that can cause blackouts. That makes the stop-and-go nature of energy from the wind and sun a constant source of worry.”

California’s Vehicle to Grid Roadmap

California’s push towards a more robust plug-in electric vehicle (“PEV”) infrastructure is steadily moving forward.  On the demand side, consumers are aggressively buying electric cars, with recent estimates finding that more than 90,000 plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars were purchased in 2013, doubling the number of plug-in electric vehicles on the road within one year; in fact, in 2013, the author of this article purchased a new PHEV.  California is home to approximately 1 out of every 3 plug-in electric vehicle in the United States.  The charging infrastructure is also going in fast.  California is already home to more than 4,000 public charging stations, and as a result of a recent settlement with the CPUC, NRG Energy will be investing $120 million in a network of EV stations which is expected to add another 10,000 plug-in units at 1,000 locations across the state.

But just how a vehicle-to-grid system will work is still being worked out.  In California’s 2013 ZEV Action Plan, entitled “A roadmap toward 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roadways by 2025”, the Governor’s Interagency Working Group on Zero-emission Vehicles tasked the California Independent System Operator with investigating how to make it work.  Specifically, the Plan tasked CAISO with developing a “roadmap” to commercialize vehicle to grid (or “V2G”) services provided by PEV batteries.

The roadmap, which was released in December of 2013, identifies the major areas of uncertainty that require additional attention, and summarizes the key next steps for advancing the V2G technology forward.  It also provides some cursory analysis of the potential economic value of aggregated PEV storage and the policy and regulatory environment required to deploy V2G technologies.  For example, the roadmap sets goals to better understand issues such as: (a) the impact the technology might have on the electrical system and grid, (b) the types of business models that could make this technology work for utilities and consumers alike, and (c) the technological needs and product guidelines that can make this technology work among consistently in a larger-scale application.  Ultimately, the roadmap lays the initial foundation for partners and other agencies build from, and hopefully accelerate development of vehicle-to-grid systems through further research and pilot programs.

In the Roadmap’s conclusion, it suggests a promising future for the technology:

Steps to enable EV aggregations to provide grid services are already underway in California. Rulemaking proceedings and standards development efforts that will define the future for VGI are in progress. Research, development and demonstrations have begun to explore the potential for VGI services and to enhance enabling technologies. This roadmap is the first step toward defining future steps toward meeting the goal of EV aggregations contributing to grid reliability”.

NextGen: Electric Cars as a Renewable Resource?

While the future of vehicle to grid technology looks bright, it forces one to think about other ways the technology might help improve our grid and advance renewables. Conceptually speaking, what if all of those distributed vehicles were more than just storage? Could it be possible to have a distributed network of vehicles that are energy generators? Well, Ford has recently introduced a car than could do just that; a concept vehicle equipped with a solar-roof that can generate enough electricity to viably charge the battery on a days worth of sunlight.  Meaning, when the car is parked with a fully charged battery, excess electricity being generated by the vehicle could theoretically be sent into the grid.  Under the right conditions, someone could own a car that produces more electricity than it uses.  Could this be the future of our cars? Of our energy future? I sure hope so!

Some additional resources:

NREL V2G Building Codes Review: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/avta/pdfs/evse/v2g_power_flow_rpt.pdf

California Energy Commission Vehicle-Grid Integration Roadmap Stakeholder Workshop: http://www.energy.ca.gov/research/notices/#10082013

CPUC Vehicle – Grid Integration – Energy Division White Paper:  http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M080/K775/80775679.pdf

One Comment

  1. Nice job, Dan. I too saw the article and was intrigued. Happy to have a parked Tesla contribute.

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