July 7, 2020, Bjorn Sturmberg Research Leader, Battery Storage & Grid Integration Program, Australian National University on The Conversation
Electric vehicles can help keep the air clean in our cities – as we’ve seen recently with the reduction of traffic through COVID-19 lockdowns – but they face two obstacles.
In the short term they’re still expensive. In the long term charging millions of vehicles from the electricity grid presents challenges.
I’m part of a new project, launched today, that tackles both of these obstacles head-on, and it could mean owners earn more money than they’re likely to pay for charging their electric vehicles.
Paid for battery power
The Realising Electric Vehicle-to-grid Services project (REVS) will see owners paid to plug their electric vehicles into the national electricity grid.
In exchange, the vehicles will allow the national grid operator to draw upon their batteries in the rare moments that the grid is on the brink of a blackout.
The REVS trial project uses vehicles from the ACT government fleet. This is a big step towards making these services available to all Australians because fleets make up more than half of all new car sales in Australia.
To understand the importance of this work we need to imagine electrifying all of Australia’s 19 million vehicles.
The need for charge
If all Australia’s vehicles were electric they would use more than 60 terrawatt hours of electricity a year. That’s around 35% of Australia’s annual electricity consumption.
Still more imposing is the amount of power these vehicles could draw if they all charged at once.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, there were 1 million, 7.7 kilowatt home chargers in Australia. That’s roughly one in ten properties. If all these cars charged at once, they would add 25% to the national load.
Flexibility is key
The first step in meeting these challenges is to utilise the flexibility of electric vehicle charging.
In reality, we won’t all charge our electric vehicles at the same time, just like we don’t all go to fill up at the petrol station at the same time. Even if we all plug in our electric vehicles overnight, our charging stations will manage their charging schedules for us.
And electricity is widely available, unlike petrol. This means electric vehicles can be topped up frequently instead of requiring a big charge from empty to full.
Power to the grid
While smart charging aims to reduce the stress on the grid, we can go further and use electric vehicles to support the grid in times of need.
The opportunities for this are tremendous. The battery capacity of 19 million vehicles would likely exceed 1,800 gigawatt hours. That’s equivalent to more than 10,000 “Tesla big batteries”, such as those used to help power South Australia, or five of the new Snowy 2.0 hydro-electric projects.
The key to unlocking this opportunity is “vehicle-to-grid” technology, which enables electric vehicles not only to charge but also to discharge power back into the grid.
The importance of these control options were demonstrated by Australia’s big batteries that help stabilise the grid when storms and fossil fuel generator outages create large mismatches in power supply and demand.
Vehicle-to-grid in Australia
The technology was demonstrated in overseas trials but questions remain about customer uptake.
How attractive will vehicle-to-grid services be for customers? What business models will be viable for manufacturers and service providers? Our REVS project is addressing these questions.
The national electricity market will pay these vehicle owners whenever the vehicles are plugged in.
In exchange, the vehicles will automatically inject power into the grid (or absorb it) when unexpected events push the grid towards a blackout.
We expect each vehicle to earn more than A$1,000 a year. That’s almost three times what it costs in electricity to drive a Nissan LEAF 12,607km (the average annual distance driven by a passenger vehicle in Australia).
This should be attractive to owners because the vehicles will only be called upon to provide power during contingencies that occur a few dozen times a year.
These contingencies are typically corrected within 15 minutes, so the effect on an electric vehicle’s battery capacity will be less than 5%. That means a vehicle won’t be left drained, without any power.
REVS is putting this scenario to the test, tracking the costs and benefits for every customer and service provider.
The REVS journey is just beginning but its destination is clear: unleashing vehicle-to-grid to drive accelerated electric vehicle uptake across Australia.
As Fossil Fuel Pipelines Fall to Opposition, Utilities See Renewable Energy as Safe Bet
Atlantic Coast and Dakota Access pipeline woes underscore trends pushing utilities toward clean power as a less risky business.JEFF ST. JOHN JULY 06, 2020
Duke and Dominion canceled their Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Both are investing heavily in renewables.
Legal challenges halted several major pipeline projects across the U.S. in recent days, underscoring a seismic shift facing the U.S. utility industry: the rise of renewables as a potentially less costly and risky alternative to fossil fuels.
Over the weekend Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, two of the country’s biggest utilities, canceled their Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, citing costs that have ballooned to as much as $8 billion and ongoing legal challenges from landowners and environmental groups. The pipeline’s legal challenges include an April federal court decision overturning Nationwide Permit 12, a federal permit authority allowing pipelines to cross waterways and wetlands, which threatens the viability of projects including the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Then on Monday the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to shut down its oil shipments from the North Dakota shale fields by next month for failure to meet federal permitting requirements. The decision is a blow to the Trump administration, which reversed an Obama administration decision to deny the permits.
Various other pipelines, such as Permian Highway project in Texas, the Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia to southern Virginia, and the PennEast project from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, may face legal challenges based on the Nationwide Permit 12 decision, said Dulles Wang, director of the North American gas team at Wood Mackenzie.TOP ARTICLES
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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancelation marks the natural-gas market’s “third high-profile victim in the last six months,” Wang wrote in a Monday note. The others include Williams Co.’s Northeast Supply Enhancement and Constitution Pipeline projects, which were withdrawn after facing permitting denials and public opposition from New York state.
“The setbacks speak to the difficulties of building new pipeline projects in the northeast U.S., even when there is actual consumer demand that supports these projects,” Wang said.
The legal victories for environmental groups on technical permitting issues are part of a broader fight against the global warming impacts of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has so far denied challenges based on the greenhouse gas impacts of pipeline projects, but groups including The Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund continue attacking those decisions in court.
For utilities and energy companies, the mounting challenges to pipeline projects may serve as an incentive to shift from plans to rely on natural gas as a bridge fuel, and toward a less risky role building ratepayer-financed electric infrastructure to serve an increasingly renewable-powered grid, analysts say.
A shifting cost-benefit equation for gas vs. renewables
“If you look at the last six to seven years, electric utilities were seeking to acquire gas utilities as a hedge against anemic electric load growth,” Rob Rains, analyst at Washington Analysis, said in a Monday interview. Today, “companies like Duke, Southern Company, Dominion, are moving back to electric, in the face of sustained public policy and consumer interest in low-carbon energy.”
The role of natural gas in meeting those targets remains an open question. Even among the utilities with net-zero targets, most still plan to build new natural-gas plants to supply round-the-clock energy demand, and none have yet committed to closing their existing natural-gas power plant fleet.
New natural-gas-fired power plants don’t face the same legal challenges as interstate gas pipelines, but they’re under pressure. The Sierra Club and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Carbon Campaign is lobbying against new natural-gas power plants, warning they may become stranded assets unable to compete cost-effectively against renewables and storage.
While intermittent wind and solar power can’t be dispatched to meet peak grid needs, they can be paired with large-scale battery installations that can. Falling costs and greater economies of scale are already making this combination cost-competitive against natural-gas peaker plants in certain markets.
Completely decarbonizing the U.S. power grid through this replacement strategy could cost up to $4.5 trillion over the next two decades, according to a 2019 Wood Mackenzie analysis. But halting construction of new natural-gas plants doesn’t need to carry such high costs. A recent study indicates the U.S. could combine a 90-percent-renewable-powered grid with a 13 percent decline in wholesale electricity costs by 2035.
The “war on gas” moves beyond pipelines
Beyond public pressure, there may be a growing economic incentive for utilities to shift from natural gas to renewable electricity. “The costs keep dropping” for renewable energy, Rains said. And regulated utilities that earn a guaranteed rate of return on electric infrastructure investments have an interest in expanding that rate base via large-scale projects, he said.
In a Sunday statement, the CEOs of Duke and Dominion expressed regret for canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which they said would have brought much-needed reliable and cost-effective energy supplies to their regions. At the same time, both utilities are increasingly looking to renewable energy to supply a significant portion of their future power supplies, both because the states they operate in are increasingly demanding it and because it’s becoming an increasingly more cost-effective alternative.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have cut across three states. (Credit: Dominion)
Dominion’s home state of Virginia passed a mandate of 100 percent clean energy by 2045 this year that will force the utility to close coal plants by mid-decade and greatly reduce natural-gas use in decades to come. Sunday’s decision to sell its multistate natural-gas business to Berkshire Hathaway will better position Dominion to expand its regulated utilities’ growing clean energy ambitions, including gigawatts of offshore wind, solar power and energy storage.
While Duke’s home state of North Carolina hasn’t taken the same step as Virginia, Duke has pledged to eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050 and is heavily engaged in renewables both through its competitive Duke Renewables subsidiary and in its regulated utility territories.
“The war on gas is shifting beyond interstate gas pipelines, and down to the distribution level, through building codes and ordinances,” Rains said. Cities in California, Massachusetts, New York and other states are seeking to replace natural gas with electricity for new buildings.
Meanwhile, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has declared support for a potential statewide ban on natural gas in new buildings to “avoid investments in new gas assets” that might be left stranded by the state’s push for a zero-carbon economy by 2045.