Electric Vehicles Represent Near-Term Challenges & Long-Term Opportunities For Utilities

August 25th, 2018 by  on Clean Technica 

We recently sat down with Chicago-based S&C Electric’s Andrew Jones to talk about the impact electric vehicles will have on the grid and found that, while there are some near-term challenges, the addition of these massive “batteries on wheels” to our grids hold the potential to add immense value.

Originally from the UK, Andrew has spent his career in the electric industry, the last 14 years of which he has spent at the S&C Electric Company. S&C makes its bread and butter on the grid side of the industry, keeping the gears well oiled & turning in what many call the largest, most complex machine ever created by humans. Andrew shared that in recent years, they are increasingly leaning into smart technologies that increase the core metrics for the grid — reliability and resiliency.

Energy storage + microgrids = resiliency

The flood of renewables onto the world’s grids has mandated that grid operators and electric utilities think about things differently, adding storage to save up unpredictable renewable energy for a time when consumers need it. Renewables and distributed generation go hand in hand with energy storage. Andrew shared that, “Storage helps, diversity of generation portfolio helps, the design of the grid helps.”

To insulate the grid from wide-scale outages, Andrew shared that S&C is increasingly seeing opportunities to redesign the grid, essentially adding microgrids of varying sizes to the grid in order to protect critical resources. In Ontario, Canada, S&C worked with local leadership on a proposal to create a microgrid for the local community center in order to provide critical resources for the rare occurrence when ice storms take down the local electrical grid.

Scaling these types of solutions up to provide emergency power for critical services for the entire city or even entire communities within the city are likely to be critical pillars of the grid of tomorrow. In Puerto Rico, solar + storage microgrid systems were added to a handful of fire stations across the island to ensure that critical services could continue functioning, even in the event that that power across the island went down.

Clusters of problems

Andrew cut right to the chase with plug-in vehicles and shared that because each EV can pull as much power in a day as a house, there is the potential for problems. He shared that EVs tend to show up in neighborhoods in clusters. One neighbor buys a Chevy Bolt and the others start taking notice. With most folks in a neighborhood typically being of a similar socioeconomic status, neighbors do some research, ask some questions, and some opt to get plug-in vehicles as their next cars.

Adding a cluster of EVs to a single neighborhood can, in very short order, effectively double the power consumption of the neighborhood, putting strain on local grid resources. “It’s the uncertainty of these clusters that’s causing the problems and the speed at which they are appearing.”

In Southern California, our home consumed around 7.1 kilowatt-hours per day and hour Mercedes B-Class Electric consumed around 7.7 kWh/day (~2.8 miles/kWh, 8,500 miles/year with some public charging). The Tesla Model S averaged around 10 kWh/day, but we drove the absolute snot out of it. Adding our two EVs to our house took our daily consumption from 7.1 kWh/day to over 28 kWh/day. Spreading that out to more homes in a neighborhood and it’s easy to see how even 7 or 8 new EVs in a neighborhood could put a strain on local transformers, power lines, and the like.

Andrew shared that S&C has some solutions that can help mitigate the negative effects of this type of cluster of EVs, but that ultimately, utilities and grid operators will be able to operate at their best if they know when new EVs are being added to the neighborhood. “It’s the lack of visibility and the variation of technology that causes the problem for utilities, not the fact that it’s there,” Andrew shared.

It’s not the revenue you want, it’s the revenue you need

The tripling of electricity usage for a single home that comes from swapping out two gasoline vehicles in favor of electric vehicles represents a lucrative new money pot for flailing utilities to tap into to replace usage lost to energy efficiency improvements. Regulations differ from region to region, and within that, from utility to utility, but the potential increase in revenue that electric vehicles represent is not lost on the utilities.

“A large percentage of utilities today are actually seeing revenues drop,” Andrew shared. “So if you take it purely from the future of electric utilities, EVs are exciting to them because they will go back into load growth mode which is how utilities make their money.” More than anything, adding a significant new source of demand for their product has the potential to shore up lost utility revenues at a time when the grid is also undergoing the most disruptive transformation in history.

Energy storage on wheels

The potential to tap into EV batteries as multifunctional energy storage units on wheels is getting some utilities interested to the point where they are starting to purchase flexible fleets for their regions. The potential for utilities to “own a fleet of electric vehicles that they’ll operate on a Zipcar type of network” could hold the keys for solving both the impending grid energy storage challenge as well as providing a new source of revenue from mobility operations.

“They will, at times when they don’t need the EVs connected to the grid, rent out the car to people who need them,” Andrew shared. Conversely, when they do need them for energy storage, they can be taken out of the rental pool and used for energy storage on the grid. It remains to be seen if the usage patterns of the cars for energy storage plays nicely with the needs of consumers, but pilot programs like this demonstrate the type of solutions utilities are exploring when it comes to EVs and energy storage. Andrew related that he is aware of at least 3 countries exploring vehicle-based portable energy storage projects.

The logical solution to this entire ordeal is to tap into existing customer EVs as grid-scale storage through special vehicle-to-grid chargers that allow power to flow into and out from connected plug-in vehicles. At present, vehicle manufacturers have proven to be resistant to the idea of building in V2G functionality and Andrew shared that, “customers really don’t believe they get paid or rewarded to do this [V2G],” so are understandably not willing to pay more for it.

It is ultimately still very early in the renewables and electric vehicle rEVolution for vehicle-to-grid technology to get enough traction to lift off, but the synergies are obvious.”There’s an issue that still exists about how much it will be used to help the grid be more flexible in the future,” Andrew said. There is value to the grid in being able to pull power from charging electric vehicles, just like there is value in having visibility and control of charging speeds as they pull power from the grid.

This demands a response

Whereas V2G functionality allows a utility to pull power from what’s already in a car’s battery, demand response gives utilities control over the power flowing into a car through a charger, throttling energy consumption from 0–100%. While V2G requires a special charger and additional functionality in each car, demand response only requires an intelligent, connected charger. These are increasingly coming to market, with one of the best examples being eMotorWerks’ JuiceBox.

The JuiceBox comes with eMotorWerks’ JuiceNet, which connects the charging station up to a select set of utilities that have opted into the program and gives them the ability to throttle charging up and down as they see fit. What’s better than instantaneous energy storage that can add power to the grid exactly when it’s needed? The ability to throttle usage on the grid down to exactly what is being produced.

JuiceNet provides a means for utilities to contract with and to pay eMotorWerks each time they need this functionality. In turn, eMotorWerks is able to offer incentives to customers for their flexibility.

It was this functionality that prompted Enel to lean in and purchase eMotorWerks as part of its multi-pronged push into the demand response space last year.