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The Present and Future of Smart Charging: Experts Weigh In

, Kendall Science Fellow | June 20, 2016, 10:47 am EDT
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Earlier this month UCS convened a workshop on smart charging, the idea of using electric vehicles as flexible loads to help the electricity system balance supply and demand. Speakers from all over the country shared their thoughts, discussed pilot projects, and explored how this topic fit into a larger set of utility transformations.

The approximately 90 participants represented state offices, utilities, grid operators, vehicle manufacturers, electric vehicle charging providers and charging station manufacturers, environmental organizations, and research organizations. Here’s a taste of what we heard.

The grid of the future

In opening remarks, the Smart Electric Power Association detailed the growing electric vehicle (EV) market and what it means for the smart grid.

A subsequent panel discussed “The Grid of the Future.”  This term encompasses changes in system hardware and software, as well as in the business models underlying the system. Speakers from AEE, Vrinda Inc., RMI, and EPRI shared their thoughts.

Intelligent management of distributed energy resources (DER) has the theoretical potential to improve the efficiency of the grid, if these technologies communicate and cooperate. Rate design and business models are key to enabling these benefits.

Engaging the consumer

Experts from UC Davis, GM, ChargePoint, and RAP discussed the steps necessary to engage consumers in smart charging programs without causing them undue concern about their vehicle’s state of charge. Bob Graham of the U.S. Department of Energy’s “EV Everywhere” initiative moderated.

Panelists emphasized the importance of making smart charging straightforward and convenient for the customer. Driver needs are considered paramount, so smart charging pilots typically offer drivers the ability to enact an override if the vehicle needs to be charged as fast as possible. “Time of use pricing” enables a basic level of smart charging, and successful programs can shift substantial energy demand to off-peak periods through very minor price incentives.

Getting customers enrolled in these pricing plans in the first place can be a more significant barrier, but some programs have had success. In Maui, a majority of customers contacted for a time-of-use pilot chose to enroll when advised of the potential for cost savings, but an even greater majority enrolled when told that doing so could help the grid accommodate more wind and solar power.

Several participants raised the idea of giving drivers three options when plugging in to charge. In one pilot, these options were low, medium, or high cost of charging depending on the driver’s willingness to allow the system to automatically slow or stop charging in response to grid needs. Alternatively, a smartphone app could offer the driver the choice of “Urgent,” “Economy,” or “Custom” charging; “Custom” might be, for example, charging when the greenest power is feeding into the grid.

David Tuttle of the University of Texas discusses vehicle-grid communication technologies.

David Tuttle of the University of Texas discusses vehicle-grid communication technologies.

Northeast utilities and distributed energy resources

Energy providers offered their perspectives on how EVs and solar power would impact the grid in the near to medium term. Eversource, National Grid, and the New York Power Authority participated in this panel, with the Edison Electric Institute moderating. EVs can have a potentially significant impact on certain local distribution networks, especially if high-powered chargers are installed at homes.

The economic benefit to utilities from smart charging or from EVs generally depends on their structure; a “decoupled” utility does not earn greater profits from selling more power, and so might have less direct financial incentive to encourage EV adoption. There was considerable discussion about utility investment in communication infrastructure, such as with smart meters.

The role of Independent System Operators

A panel representing grid operators discussed opportunities for DERs such as EVs to participate in their markets, and help balance supply and demand and ensure reliability:

  • PJM is among the leaders in incorporating DERs, with a low threshold size for market participation and a high-visibility V2G (vehicle-to-grid) project.
  • CAISO has interesting programs including a “Supply-Side Pilot” and an “Excess Supply Pilot” for demand response.
  • ERCOT and ISO-NE are also undertaking pilot projects to increase their understanding of how DERs work on their grids.

Grid operators find significant value in having good understanding of what resources are on the grid, and what conditions are present. Depending on how they are designed, DERs can help or hinder this understanding.

Deferring distribution upgrades

The ability of using smart charging to reduce distribution capacity investments (relative to a case with unmanaged charging) is an interesting but uncertain value proposition. Panelists from E3, LBNL, and RMI discussed this topic, with NREL moderating.

Participants noted the very minor impact of EVs on the grid to date, even in areas with high penetration of EVs. What impacts there are tend to be localized, so incentives might need to be localized as well. Utilities do not always have actionable information regarding conditions on the distribution system, and could benefit from smart chargers relaying this data to them.

Leveraging smart rate design to reduce costs

Experts on rate design from Synapse, RAP, NCLC, and Vrinda Inc. discussed how rate structures might be designed to encourage actions that would reduce overall grid costs. This could enable EVs to provide benefits to the grid, receiving payments for managing their charging without disadvantaging ratepayers who do not have EVs.

Time-of-use pricing may have a role to play, although questions remain about the cost-effectiveness of the necessary scale of deployment of smart meters. Demand charges may lack justification on a true cost basis if they are not based on a customer’s contribution to network or system peak load.

The OEM perspective

A panel of representatives from Ford, GM, Daimler, and BMW discussed their involvement in smart charging. Their experiences include a range of pilot projects and standards development initiatives. The most important message was that smart charging must prioritize the driver; the vehicle has to be charged when it is needed, and the process should be as simple as possible.

Britta Gross of General Motors shares her insights in a breakout session on automaker perspectives.

Britta Gross of General Motors shares her insights in a breakout session on automaker perspectives.

Other observations were the importance of open standards, the presence of communication and control capabilities in today’s vehicles, and the importance of environmental factors in motivating adoption of smart charging. The grid conditions right now do not seem to require smart charging as a solution for problems, but it’s a ready solution.

Future directions

Other great pieces from the workshop:

  • Future research – The workshop concluded with a brainstorming session on important areas for future research. Participants offered many interesting ideas, some of which I will explore on my own and some of which other organizations are investigating.
  • Case studies – Numerous participants discussed their experiences using the managed charging of EVs to benefit the grid. They included Aerovironment, EMotorWerks, ChargePoint, NREL, Greenlots, and LBNL. I’ll talk more about these in upcoming weeks.
  • New scholarship – Two participating organizations noted they had forthcoming reports on the topic. RMI has now released “Electric Vehicles as Distributed Energy Resources” and NRDC has released “Driving out Pollution.” Both of these organizations offered insightful observations and questions at the workshop.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all of my speakers, panelists, attendees, and colleagues for helping to make this event a success.

You can view all the documents here. A longer report is forthcoming.

 

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