Grid Expectations: Do PHEVs Need a Benefactor?

When Chevrolet announced plans to offer a $30,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) called the Volt to consumers by 2010, U.S. utilities raced to ready the grid.

Mar 1st, 2009
Th Grid 01

By Kristen Wright

When Chevrolet announced plans to offer a $30,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) called the Volt to consumers by 2010, U.S. utilities raced to ready the grid. Potential buyers grew greener with electric envy. Utilities conducted field trials. And then recession hit. Now General Motors has little money to sell the product that could save its bumper. The Big Three automakers asked the federal government to be their benefactor because consumers who can slap down the cash or qualify for a loan are afraid to buy anything from Detroit right now. Some people wonder: Did we toot a horn prematurely?

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Probably not, said David Kaplan, chief technology officer and founder of V2Green. The Seattle company develops smart charging software and hardware for utilities to manage plug-in vehicle power flow. Its field trial partners include Duke Energy, Xcel Energy, Austin Energy and Seattle City Light.

“We do expect GM, Toyota, and others to deliver within the 2010 timeframe. There are modest-scale fleet trials even next year,” Kaplan said.

He thinks the U.S. recession plus constraints of human-produced carbons mean a big change is coming to the auto and utility industries. But two things need to happen, he said.

“In the next couple of decades to solve energy and climate crisis, more and more end-use energy needs to be moved onto the grid, and we need to clean the grid,” Kaplan said. “They can happen in parallel. Electric transportation is involved in the first. Electric transportation is an important supporting part in the second.”

Grid-Cleansing Technology

Kaplan’s V2Green System allows utilities, automakers and drivers to achieve those changes together. It works like this: The integrated client-server solution establishes two-way communication between plug-in vehicles–which are essentially mobile batteries–and the grid. Drivers may set their own parameters (as in the car must be fully charged by 7 a.m. on workdays), and utilities can manage bidirectional charging in real time. For example, a utility can increase charging levels when renewable energy such as wind, hydro or solar power is available, and it can slow charging during peak periods of expensive, carbon-intensive energy generation. In short, it cleans the grid.

When the grid could use additional clean energy, Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technology can return to the grid energy stored in a plug-in vehicle’s battery. Drivers, therefore, could plug in and sell energy back to utilities for a profit or loss, dependent on real-time rates.

The V2Green System also captures driver and vehicle performance information, including AC energy metering and GPS, automatically uploading and making real-time summary data available in a user-friendly Web interface.

Electronics and software embedded in plug-in vehicles make up a Vehicle Connectivity Module (VCM). It transmits commands to a vehicle’s power electronics and communicates performance data back to the V2Green Server via cellular, WiFi, utility AMI networks or other communication methods.

Field Trials

V2Green and its field trial partners aim to accomplish six goals:

  1. Establish electric transportation benefits (confirm vehicle efficiency, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, lower fuel costs, etc.).
  2. Assess grid performance and the importance of controlling vehicle load at the distribution level.
  3. Investigate synchronized vehicle charging and renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro) availability.
  4. Learn real-world driver behavior (charging patterns, trip detail, required support services, etc.).
  5. Explore controlled charging scenarios (time-of-day, location-specific).
  6. Employ charging as a way to deliver ancillary services (system regulation, spinning reserves).

Xcel Energy with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory deployed the first V2G field trial to evaluate the impact of charging control on grid stability and the potential to use plug-in vehicles for renewable energy storage. The test fleet consists of six converted Ford Escape Hybrids. Congressional members, delegates, and local government officials attending last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver got to see smart charging and V2G demonstrations firsthand. In addition, V2Green is part of Xcel’s $100 million SmartGridCity initiative in Boulder, Colo. It’s featured in the hands-on SmartGridCity Experience mobile exhibit and the University of Colorado’s chancellor’s residence, the first SmartGridCity home.

Austin Energy is using two converted Toyota Priuses to assess the potential of West Texas wind to power transportation and increase renewable energy use in power generation operations.

Seattle City Light is conducting the largest smart charging field trial to date with 13 converted Priuses. It’s the first “net carbon neutral” vehicle fleet in the United States. The utility will explore the impact of an urban plug-in fleet on grid operations.

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Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C., will continue its field trials with four converted Priuses through 2009, said Mike Rowand, director of advanced customer technologies. Duke is partnering with Progress Energy and nonprofit Advanced Energy in the nation’s first multi-utility field trial to study PHEV roaming across adjacent utility service areas and the consequential billing changes. The total number of vehicles in the trial will be 12, with Progress Energy deploying four in North Carolina and two in Florida. Advanced Energy will operate one vehicle. The University of Florida’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities, along with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension service, also will participate with one vehicle.

“Since our service territories back up to each other, we thought it would be interesting to start looking at issues when vehicles cross utility boundaries. With the appropriate smart charging, we can manage the load without adding to our peak capacity,” Rowand said. “We’re not saying we need to increase our conductor size because we’re not there yet. It may be five, six, or 10 years.”

Numerous studies support Duke’s findings. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has said that PHEVs will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions if there are “programs to actively manage the charging load.” According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), “No additional capacity would be required for even a massive penetration of PHEVs,” assuming charging occurs overnight. In addition, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has found that “84 percent of the cars, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles could be supported by the existing infrastructure, suggesting a gasoline displacement potential of 52 percent of the nation’s oil imports,” assuming the entire PHEV load will be “managed to fit perfectly into the valleys of load demand without setting new peaks.”

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Duke uses strategic modeling to predict load increase resulting from drivers plugging in. A driver might initially charge his car overnight in his garage, drive 45 miles across a utility boundary, then recharge there. Afterward, he might drive 10 miles to stay overnight at a friend’s house, where he’ll plug in and deliver stored energy back to the grid.

The cost of the trials is very little in the near term, Rowand said, for one because Duke has a division that continually studies emerging technologies.

“We continually look at what could change our focus. We’re not really funding a big grid impact,” he said. “It’s really just being incorporated into standard business processes as opposed to ‘Here’s a big budget to look at the impact on the grid.’”

Two, Duke had already converted the Priuses to raise PHEV technology awareness before the utility agreed to conduct field trials. The trials simply add value to Duke’s PHEV conversions, Rowand said.

Down the Road

Duke will be ready for an increased load at a time that coincides purposefully with the Volt’s projected release. Rowand expects drivers in Duke’s service area to go for the Volt because of its affordability, early release and green benefits.

“It’s coming November 2010,” Rowand said. “We’re part of a utility collaboration working with GM. The Volt is very committed, and we think they’re going to deliver.”

Kaplan points to further reasons drivers will choose the Volt. The first financial bailout bill included up to a $7,500 tax credit to allow consumers to buy electric vehicles.

“It fits the Chevy Volt perfectly,” Kaplan said. “We think that’s an important incentive.”

Don’t think the Volt won’t have competition. Each plug-in automaker wants to get its product to market first, and Kaplan expects other strong electric models soon, some of which are potential disrupters in the auto space.

“Nissan’s made a major commitment there. Tesla and Fisker and maybe a few others come more to mind as deeply funded and at the scale to produce in the consumer marketplace,” Kaplan said.

Some 40 to 50 PHEV or electric plug-in models have been announced, and V2Green hopes to be integrated in many of them. Kaplan has been invited to meet with Detroit automakers, utilities and lithium-ion battery makers to discuss PHEVs.

Electric utilities must understand each PHEV and electric plug-in’s targeted demographic, its charging requirements, as well as its expected release date in specific markets to ready the grid accordingly. For example, Hollywood types in exclusive neighborhoods might go crazy for Tesla Roadsters in 2009, while suburban, middle-class eco-conscious drivers in Charlotte might line up to buy Chevy Volts in 2010, Rowand said.

“Will they come in clusters, when all the people on one cul-de-sac will buy one? We want to have customer processes in place and programs ready in late 2010,” he said. “The Chevy Volt may be in our market or not. We think that’s about the time, whether it’s the Volt or the Prius. We want to be ahead of the curve, as opposed to two or three years after the fact.”

Some drivers are already hiring specialized garages to convert their factory-made hybrids into aftermarket PHEVs. A typical plug-in conversion costs about $7,500 and includes replacement of a hybrid’s original nickel-metal-hydride (Ni-MH) batteries with lead acid ones. That extends the distance a vehicle can travel on electricity. When more efficient lithium-ion batteries become available, conversions should grow even more efficient.

Despite all of the good things that come with PHEVs, utilities still have some fears. Rowand said a worst-case scenario would be that everyone in the same community buys a plug-in vehicle at the same time, then charges it at 5 p.m. after returning from work. Others would be that PHEV adoption rates remain low during a dismal economy and Americans don’t realize the societal benefits because of technical hurdles.

But Kaplan said that’s why V2Green’s technology is important.

“We actually expect these problems to materialize on a local basis,” Kaplan said. “In certain neighborhoods in LA, D.C., suburban New York, Boston¿places with a high concentration of hybrid vehicles. Without our technology, it’s very likely problems would materialize if the air conditioners are running and people are cooking dinner. That’s why we got into this business.”

Rowand’s best-case scenario involves fulfillment of the following four points:

  1. Battery costs fall to make the vehicles comparable in cost to gasoline, which helps energy security and reduces emissions.
  2. Vehicles have a good adoption rate.
  3. Vehicles are charged off peak.
  4. Vehicles meet customer expectations.

Kaplan said Americans have few choices if we’re going to get off fossil fuel-based transportation.

“Electricity is going to get the lion’s share of transportation,” he said. “We think governments–not only here, but around the world–will make this an attractive proposition.”


About the Author:
Kristen Wright is associate editor of Electric Light & Power magazine.


What’s Coming When, and for How Much?

Nissan’s electric concept car is the Denki (Japanese for “electric”) Cube Concept. Before the Denki is available to U.S. consumers, in 2008 Nissan introduced them to its boxy gas-powered counterpart, the $14,000 Cube, popular for years in Asia.

Availability of Tesla Motor’s $50,000 to $70,000 Model S (Whitestar), a five-person sedan in all-electric and “range-extended vehicle” (REV) forms, has been delayed until 2011. The California-based company uses the term REV instead of PHEV. Auto enthusiasts, the rich and investors already know Tesla. In 2008, it began selling the super-sexy, $98,000 all-electric Roadster that Tesla says can go 244 miles before recharging. It sold 900 of them. If you didn’t order one, the 2009 model can be yours for an additional $21,000. The feds know Tesla, too. The company recently asked the U.S. Department of Energy for $400 million in low-interest loans to fund its Model S production. Originally, Tesla had planned to release the Model S in late 2009. Another change the company is considering is slashing the price of the Model S to $30,000 in a few years when the cost of lithium-ion batteries decreases.

Fisker Automotive, another U.S. carmaker, developed the Karma PHEV-50. The wide, low-slung, four-door sports sedan can travel up to 50 miles on an electrical charge before a GM gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity. Fisker hopes to begin selling the $80,000 Karma in late 2009.

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