Energy Transition

Can electric fleets help manage the power network?

Sarah Murray
Journalist, Financial Times/Economist Group
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In November, the United States Air Force unveiled a new fleet—one made up of 42 plug-in electric vehicles designed to feed power back to the grid when the vehicles are not in use. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology could help cut fuel costs and, when storing energy from renewables, carbon emissions. But can it help make the grid more reliable?

Researchers from the University of Skopje, Macedonia, believe it can. In a joint study published last November in New Journal of Physics, they tested the ability of a fleet of electric vehicles to help the grid adjust to sudden, large changes in demand. According to their simulation, adding 39 to New England’s power system would enable it to reduce voltage fluctuations by a factor of five, while giving 20-40% more time for the system to stabilise.

Others are testing the role of V2G in helping reduce load demand. A partnership between Con Edison, GE, FedEx and Columbia University, for example, is using big-data analytics to optimise the charging times of a fleet of EV trucks in Manhattan. Preliminary findings suggest that optimising charging times could help a fleet of 100 trucks save $11,500 worth of electricity every month according to GE, which participated to the project as part of its ecomagination program.

Fleet managers also benefit from the services their EVs provide to the grid. University of Delaware researchers, for example, found that a fleet of V2G-enabled school buses can generate up to $15k annually from ancillary services (power needed to manage peak demand and intermittent renewable resources) .

The overall capacity contribution of EVs could be substantial. By 2025, the electrical load represented by plug-in electric vehicles is estimated by Navigant Research to be as much as 55 GW, with V2G services generating up to $190m by 2022.

Before EVs can become a tool with which to balance the grid, however, a complex ecosystem of charging and storage technologies, regulatory frameworks and market conditions must be put in place.

Standard communication protocols, in particular, have yet to emerge. These are crucial for a smooth two-way power flow between large numbers of vehicles and the grid. The US National Smart Grid Consortium, which includes 15 American utilities and 9 automakers, is an example of an industry partnership working to define these protocols.

Managing a large fleet of EVs will be complex, too. “At the moment, the amount of electric vehicles on the system is not an issue,” says Gavin Purchas, director of California clean energy initiatives at the Environmental Defense Fund. “But as you get to high penetration, that will require more system upgrades and lead to a significant increase in load.” It will also require regulation—eg, to enable V2G public stations to buy and sell electricity.

The potential of V2G for grid services is evident, but before EVs can provide large-scale energy-balancing services, clear market mechanisms are needed. “The technology is there,” says Mr Purchas. “It’s more that we haven’t priced it properly into the system.”

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sarah Murray writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: University of Delaware Professor Willett Kempton removes the power plug from an electric-powered Toyota Scion near his office at the university in Newark, Delaware. CARS-ELECTRIC/ REUTERS/Tim Shaffer 

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