By Beaudry Kock
The smart grid will only live up to its promise if utilities and grid operators spur innovation and engagement by relinquishing their tight control of grid data and consumer energy profiles; and if consumers who can store and generate energy are given true ownership credit and a piece of the revenue pie, driving interest and participation. Experience with deploying electric vehicles on the grid suggests to us that there’s a bright future for the EV and other smart grid appliances, but only if we tackle these core issues of data access and energy control.
The electric vehicle is one of those dramatic shifts in consumer technology that could help put the “smart” back into “smart grid.” Not only is this an appliance with substantial energy storage and powerful onboard computing, but it delivers huge and recurring value for the consumer. In other words, it’s not likely to end up on the shelf and ignored. As penetration continues to grow, an EV may end up being central to everyone’s personal corner of the smart grid. Already, we can see that even one EV in every third or fourth driveway can enable huge potential for consumer and grid energy services, in areas like ancillary services, energy, capacity, blackstart, reductions in demand charges, and increased solar penetrations. With traditional, more expensive providers edged out, we might then see real revenue flowing back down the wires from grid operator to utility to consumer as vehicle batteries are leveraged to deliver a safe, reliable, and clean energy system.
The coming vehicle-to-grid revolution has been foretold for some time. However, as is the case with connected thermostats, appliances, and home solar, the smart grid has yet to live up to its promise. Smart meters and other AMI technologies have rolled out successfully — this much is true. But the vision of every consumer being intimately connected to their energy use profile and participating actively for energy savings and operational efficiencies in a smart and distributed grid has yet to become a reality; the smart grid and its service offerings have failed to excite consumers. “Smart grid” remains utility jargon rather than consumer reality.
We believe that to enable a change in how consumers engage with these new technologies, we need truly open grid and appliance data, and real consumer ownership of energy storage and generation.
Many utilities and grid operators are holding tightly onto data, including individual consumption patterns as well as grid-scale metrics, which are the keys to innovation in this sector. These data streams yield a rich trove of information on possible efficiencies and the potential for new energy services, yet are mostly locked down or distributed via non-standard and outdated technologies that prohibit dynamic use of the information.
Adding further to the issue is the lack of agreement among OEMs (the manufacturers of the Nissan LEAF, the Tesla and other EVs on the market) as to whether or not drivers should really be able to fully access the data streams coming out of the vehicles themselves. While third parties like Automatic and FleetCarma are stepping into the breach, these solutions still remain most relevant to the enthusiast. Just as grid metrics can guide how drivers make use of their EVs for energy services, vehicle metrics help the grid understand what each vehicle can offer. Having an open, bidirectional flow of information benefits everyone.
Data and information aside, many established energy players are also fighting hard against distributed storage and generation, appropriately perceiving the technologies as a threat to traditional business models but simultaneously unwilling to see the opportunities they open up. The consumer is consequently never allowed the means to profit: their ownership of a key grid resource goes unrecognized and largely unrewarded. You might think you’re going off-grid with rooftop solar, but in most cases, if domestic electricity drops, your solar panel will stop feeding energy into the home circuit. Similarly, you might think you can just plug your EV into your home and use it for emergency power; and perhaps even earn a few bucks from letting the utility manage your charge for a more stable, cheaper grid. But without expensive panel upgrades, complicated submetering additions, and special utility programs, these goals are simply unattainable. The value in your smart grid appliances can only be unlocked at the behest of the utility, whereas the autonomy enabled by these technologies implies the opposite.
It comes down to this: for EV owners, data access and ownership obstacles sit squarely between them and the prospect of cost savings and revenue generation. Utilities and grid operators lock down operational data which could be used to guide EV deployment in grid services, returning real dollars to the vehicle owner. Auto manufacturers lock down vehicle charge data and controls that could be used to integrate these vehicles in the smart grid — which would not only send revenue the way of the owner, but also give them more control over vehicle fueling sources and help in conserving battery life.
There’s no good reason why this should be so. The security risk to opening up grid metrics like frequency and renewable generation share is minimal to nonexistent. The abilities to monitor state of charge and adjust charging schedules in vehicles hardly constitute a gross risk to the driver. What’s more, no one is asking for the moon: opening up even small portions of these data streams would allow for simple and quick interventions today. More complex solutions can come later, but let’s at least prove out the potential.
How do we know this? Here at PlugShare we’ve got first hand experience in deploying electric vehicles to the grid. We know there is huge appetite among EV owners to make their vehicles available for smart grid services — even without the promise of revenue in return. When PlugShare ran a demand response pilot with Silicon Valley EVs during the summer of 2013, 30% of vehicles were able to shed load during peak events — unheard of in the demand response sector. We’ve also connected what grid signals we can access, such as peak event and grid congestion signals, to our PlugShare app user community and to the increasing numbers of vehicles which are technologically enabled to receive our control signals. With this minimalist approach, we can more or less instantly reduce or increase load on hundreds of vehicles in the Bay Area alone. In fact, we strongly believe in beginning this process with fast, lightweight, and experimental interventions using whatever technology is available; there is no need to completely unlock the grid’s data streams to start doing good.
But we could do so much more.
With open data policies on the smart grid, we could tailor efficiency and demand response programs in real time, balancing the unique needs of each energy consumer against what a stable, clean and safe grid demands. By ensuring true ownership of energy for those who have the means to store and generate it, the model of consumer/smart grid engagement changes from fee-for-access to fee-for-service. Just putting advanced smart grid technologies out there is not enough: we need institutional reform towards an open, grassroots grid that will enable hugely capable resources like EVs and smart thermostats to reach their potential.
Beaudry is Vice President of Smart Grid and Government Relations at PlugShare. He leads PlugShare’s vehicle intelligence work, which is connecting electric vehicles everywhere to the smart grid, and also works to advocate for EV adoption nationwide. Beaudry has a PhD in urban and regional planning and broad expertise around infrastructure systems including transportation, energy and water, but is particularly focused on advancing clean and sustainable transportation in and around urban centers: helping people get where they need to go, comfortably, efficiently and sustainably. He has worked in the past with the University of Oxford, ERM and MIT on sustainability strategy, policy and planning.
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