We need to start thinking about how electric vehicles and the grid can integrate seamlessly. But, no matter how smart we make the grid and no matter how smart we make electric vehicles technologically, we also need smart policies.
The Holy Grail for advocates of a smarter grid is two-way communication so that consumers and producers can work together to balance peaks in demand. As demand rises and much of the electric infrastructure begins to age, utilities will struggle to balance this load.
Moreover, now there are nearly a quarter of a million American plug-in electric vehicle owners, many grid operators fear that a spike in electricity demand could strain the system beyond its limits. This could have serious implications for our resilience and cost our country billions of dollars each year.
Consumers have an opportunity to help out during times of peak demand by delaying vehicle charging. To do this you need two things. Firstly, you need the technology so that the grid can communicate with your electric vehicle and your vehicle can communicate with the grid. This is called vehicle-grid integration – bidirectional power and communication flow. Then the utility could send a message to an electric vehicle owner to say, “Hey, if it’s okay with you, we’re going to wait a few hours to start charging your vehicle as long as you don’t need it until tomorrow morning.”
Secondly, you need to provide suitable incentives so the vehicle owner is rewarded for changing their behaviour and delaying that charge by getting cheaper power or even money back from the utility. There is value to both consumers and the utility in conserving energy during peak events. The more we conserve energy and shift our usage, the fewer new power plants we need to build. Utilities are beginning to realise this value and should continue to develop programmes that couple energy availability with real-time pricing.
It’s pretty simple. When electricity is scarce, you should get money back for reducing consumption to only what you need.
Vehicle-grid integration, when coupled with proper real-time pricing policies, has enormous potential. Not only could utilities communicate and delay vehicle charging automatically during peak events, but in certain instances fully charged vehicles that are not in use could help level demand by providing power back to the grid.
Former United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff pointed out that it should be up to the individual to make this choice, “If I don't want my … electric car controlled, I don't have to get paid what these cars [are] now getting paid in Delaware: $7 to $10 a day per car. They are getting paid over $3,000 a year to use these cars to simply control regulation service on the grid when they are charged at night. So it is up to the consumer to decide.”
It’s important that we continue to develop and invent the technologies to enable a smarter grid that integrates seamlessly with electric vehicles. But the true key to creating a “smart grid” is balancing incentives and policies that will deploy the technology effectively. The grid and the electric vehicle need to start talking to each other a little bit better, but so do those that develop the technologies and those that develop the policies.