EVs + AI = A Grid Revolution

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By Scott McGaraghan

‘So, what’s it going to take to get you into a nice new grid asset today?’

Said no one, ever. Yet many of us in the energy industry tend to think about EVs as grid assets. Or worse, we think of them as headache-inducing for our evolving electrical grid and as a problem to be solved. To consumers, EVs are still just a way to get where they want to go, albeit one that’s cleaner than other alternatives.

It’s easy to see why some utilities view EVs with concern, given that an EV can double a house’s peak demand. The recently announced Federal incentives in the US will spur demand, however, and that will in turn bring prices down even further through manufacturing efficiencies. This is great news for making EVs more accessible, allowing a much broader swath of the population to take advantage of their benefits. But this growth will just compound the challenges for utilities. Fortunately, advances in digital control platforms enhanced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) now make it possible to manage EV charging capacity in creative ways. EVs can serve, rather than compromise, power grids.

The benefits of coordinated charging go beyond simply solving the problems prompted by EVs themselves. As the grid shifts its generation blend towards renewable generation, all of those EV batteries can be leveraged to capture excess renewable energy and release it when the wind fades or the sun goes down. This is a classic use case for Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), aggregations of generation, load and energy storage that can respond to the needs of power grids in real-time. VPPs are the glue that will hold the decarbonised and decentralised grid of the future together and EVs are a major contributor to making that glue stick.

Still, there is a paradox that our industry will have to address: for EVs to become grid assets, we can’t think of them as grid assets. EVs will proliferate only to the extent that consumers continue to choose them over gas-powered alternatives. While there are many who will place a value on their EV’s potential to support the growth of renewable generation, that value could be called into question the first time they wake up to a dead battery.

Boon or Burden?

Most electric utilities welcome the opportunity to sell more of their product to new EV owners. Yet, while basic load growth is good for the sector, the concentration of that growth within a specific location or at a specific time of day can be a major problem. Actively managing EV charging load could not only alleviate infrastructure upgrade investments but also decrease grid balancing costs. After all, every kW of capacity that is made available in customers’ garages is a kW of capacity that society doesn’t have to pay to have constructed specifically for the purpose of balancing our grid. This helps keep down the cost of electricity for everyone.

Vehicle Grid Integration (VGI) is the umbrella term for how EVs participate in grid balancing schemes. EVs may do this by modulating the rate of power at which the battery is charged, known as unidirectional VGI, or by providing power back to the grid, known as Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G). In practical terms, the primary difference between the two is that V2G enables EVs to participate in grid services to a greater extent than VGI systems. Opportunities for deployment vary significantly by location depending on the confluence of a growing EV population, an intelligent grid, penetration of renewable resources and open market regulatory structures.

Today, smart software exists to enable both VGI and V2G solutions. Steered by AI, software platforms can manage EV charging to lower costs for EV owners, thus making EVs accessible to a wider consumer base, while also responding to the needs of the power grid. Costs can be lowered by charging up EVs at night when electricity prices are typically low due to lower demand. EVs can also soak up excess renewable energy from solar and wind resources, if necessary, with the help of the same software. This reliance on digital technologies to manage EVs and other DER assets is now emerging as a viable solution across the globe.

Customers Come First

But this technology will only deliver its promised benefits if it is designed with a broad base of consumers as primary and the grid as secondary.

If you doubt this, consider all of the mental gymnastics a consumer must go through today when considering whether to buy an EV: Do I need an EV charger installed before I buy the car? Will that require an upgrade to my electrical panel? How much will my electric bill go up? Can I afford it? Will this actually reduce emissions? Where will I get it fixed? How much range will I really have? Where will I charge it when I take it on a longer trip? And how much more is the purchase price of this EV than its gas-powered counterpart?

Now, consider going to that same consumer, and saying ‘I’ll give you a few hundred bucks each year if you let me monkey around with your charging to suit my needs.’ Maybe more to the point, try to imagine a car salesperson making that pitch at the point of sale. Not going to happen.

The right approach comes down to thinking about each customer’s needs. Ensuring that EVs are adequately charged is table stakes for just about any customer segment, but people’s motivations can vary beyond that. Some might be interested in how their flexibility is helping to keep power flowing to local schools and hospitals. Others may be happy to hear about the dirty peaker plant that didn’t turn on because their charging time was shifted. Still others might care most about the size of the check they’re going to receive.

Digital Is the Key to Decarbonisation

Customer segmentation is, of course, a well-understood application of technology that can help to identify each customer’s needs and cater to them. With modern AI solutions, it’s now possible to take things a step further and optimize how a fleet of customer vehicles can be collectively orchestrated in a way that takes into account each customer’s preferences, driving patterns, and even their unspoken motivations. For example, while customers may say the money isn’t enough to motivate their participation in flexibility schemes, enrollment drops off significantly if payments are removed. And by matching that deep understanding of customer needs to the needs of the grid, charging and discharging activity can be timed so as to create a real benefit for the grid.

Source: Smart Energy

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