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Exploding The “Electric Cars Will Destroy The Grid” Myth

Critics insist electric cars will destroy the grid. But with the advent of vehicle to grid technology, the grid will become more resilient.

The news and the internet are aflame with stories about how electric cars will destroy the electrical grid. Here’s how that argument works: 1) A few weeks ago, California announced that the sale of passenger cars and light trucks powered by gasoline or diesel engines would be prohibited beginning in 2035. 2) Last week, CAISO, which operates the electrical grid, warned that a punishing heat wave had pushed demand for electricity to record levels and rolling blackouts could follow if demand was not reduced. Within 30 minutes, the California Office of Emergency Services texted millions of California residents, urging them to turn off their electrical appliances if possible and reduce nonessential power consumption.

The OES suggested setting air conditioners a few degrees higher, turning off electric clothes driers, and not charging electric cars during the emergency. Bloomberg picks up the story from there. “And just like that, the problem was solved. Within five minutes the grid emergency was all but over.”

End of story, right? Nope. Reactionaries were soon hoo-hooing and hah-hahing about how stupid California was to mandate electric cars and then tell people not to charge them. Yup, that’s a real knee-slapper, that is. What these brainiacs didn’t stop to consider is that the ICE ban is 13 years in the future, while the emergency lasted all of 5 minutes. Can we all just take a breath?

Electric Car Lessons Learned

Axios says, “EVs aren’t what’s straining the grid. California had roughly 680,000 registered EVs as of July 1, per S&P Global Mobility, accounting for less than 1% of the state’s total electricity demand. Even if there are 5 million EVs by 2030, they will account for about 7% of annual electricity usage and 1% of peak demand, according to the California Air Resources Board.”

In fact, according to Yahoo Finance, the cause of the grid emergency was a faulty pricing mechanism that determines when grid storage batteries start sending electricity to the grid. As a result, those batteries began discharging in the middle of the afternoon when there was still plenty of solar power and other supplies available to meet electricity demand. That in turn depleted the the amount of stored electricity before it was more critically needed in the early evening.

Nevertheless, the batteries did manage to supply nearly 2,700 megawatts of electricity — slightly more than two-thirds of the total capacity — between 6 pm and 7 pm when the extra juice was really needed. “The way batteries are operated on the grid, we are still on a steep learning curve,” said Severin Borenstein, an energy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and member of the board of governors of CAISO. “We are still learning about the right way to integrate them.”

Managing Charging For Electric Cars

What the people guffawing about the danger electric cars pose to the grid fail to understand is that EVs can charge whenever the time is right. Just because a car is plugged in does not mean it is drawing power from the grid.

Every electric car sold in America allows owners to schedule when charging begins and ends. Many EV chargers are connected to the internet, which allows them to search for the least expensive electricity — usually between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am. They can also be programmed to react to notifications from grid operators to stop charging when the demand for electricity is high.

There is another side to the story that many people don’t know about and few understand. Electric cars are on the brink of a disruptive new technology known as vehicle-to-grid, or V2G. It allows the battery in the car to feed electricity back into the grid when demand is high. The promise of V2G is that is will allow all those electric cars that cause such fear and dread to stabilize the grid and prevent blackouts rather than causing them. How about that?

Just last week, Fermata released a bi-directional EV charger that allows a Nissan LEAF to operate in V2G mode or V2H (vehicle-to-home) mode. According to Nissan, “The Nissan LEAF is currently the only fully electric passenger vehicle in the US market able to supply energy to the grid, allowing LEAF owners with the Fermata Energy FE-15 bi-directional charger to park their vehicle, plug it in, and save money with their local electric utility as well as reduce the total cost of ownership of the vehicle.” Oh, and by the way, using the Fermata charger will not affect the manufacturer’s battery warranty.

The upshot? 13 years from now, far from threatening the grid, electric cars will be a vital component of a new, more resilient grid that is capable of meeting all the expectations of utility customers (those who haven’t already gone off-grid with rooftop or community solar systems of their own).

It is important to understand that owners have total control over V2G or V2H systems. They get to decide when the local utility can tap the stored energy in their batteries, for how long, and set the maximum amount of energy that can be withdrawn before the system is disconnected. If they don’t want to participate, they don’t have to.

WeaveGrid & Electric Cars

WeaveGrid is a San Francisco-based startup that builds software to connect EV drivers to the grid. According to Fast Company, it is working with Pacific Gas & Electric to pilot a program that pays drivers to enroll their cars in smart charging. “We’re talking about thousands of drivers,” says CEO Apoorv Bhargava. “So that’s a pretty huge amount of load that we’re going to be moving off of peak.”

It’s similar to “virtual power plant” software in homes, which can help automatically adjust thermostats or run appliances at the best time to keep the grid operating in the face of increasing challenges from climate change. The software takes into account the risk from wildfires and ensures that when a shutoff is planned, electric cars are charged in advance.

“As renewables become more prominent in electricity generation, you will see spikes — it’s not like it used to be with coal plants or nuclear plants, where the amount of electricity generated is more or less uniform through time,” says Heta Gandhi, a PhD student at the University of Rochester who has studied how vehicle-to-grid charging can benefit both the grid and drivers. “It depends on how much wind we have, or how much sun we have. When there are those spikes, you can charge your electric vehicle, and it can act as a storage device.”

Bhargava says, “Our goal here at the company is to ensure that EVs are not going to be a challenge to the grid. Yeah, EVs are a massive new type of load. But what we’re trying to enable is that they can become a really powerful asset to the grid, rather than being a liability.” If cars charge when there’s extra renewable energy available, for example, grid operators can avoid curtailing wind or solar power.

“This is the first moment in the history of both the automotive and the electric industry where they’re going from being two independent systems to becoming the same integrated system,” he says. “Cars are now going to be dependent on the electric grid, and vice versa. The electric grid will very quickly become dependent on the valuable services that vehicles can provide.” And just wait until you see what wonders electric school buses can do once they are parked at the end of the school day and plugged into the grid.

The Takeaway

On the reddit EV forum recently, one user asked whether it seems like there is more anti-EV FUD than usual and the answer is yes. A disgraced former president jumped on the bandwagon this week. Are you wondering why? Because the fossil fuel industry is terrified by the changes electric cars will bring. Instead of preparing for the new reality, they are spending massive amounts of money to get their sycophants to spew any ridiculous arguments they can think of — no matter how absurd.

The truth is, electric cars will be vital to the future health and resiliency of the grid. Embrace the future, people. You have nothing to fear but fear itself.

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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