Tesla owners pulling up to plug in at specific Supercharger locations in the U.S. will soon be met with an unfamiliar sight: electric vehicles (EVs) from other car companies, parked in and charging at spots previously compatible just for a Tesla.
General Motors, Rivian, and Ford have all recently announced partnerships with Tesla to use the once-exclusive Supercharger network, as well as adopting North American Charging Standard (NACS) ports on their vehicles. This is a major shift from the current industry standard of combined charging system (CCS) ports and an acknowledgment from the two major Detroit automakers that there is customer demand to have access to the Tesla Supercharger network.
According to research from the International Energy Agency, about 10 million EVs were sold worldwide last year. More than 1 million are expected to be sold in the U.S. in 2023. CleanTechnica said about 5.7% of U.S. car sales last year were of fully electric vehicles. In the next 10 years, EY predicts that EV sales will dominate the sales of all other types of vehicles—five years sooner than experts previously anticipated.
Better access to public fast charging will continue to build the momentum of EV adoption and the accessibility of owning one of these vehicles. A major hurdle confronting utilities will be infrastructure upgrades and maintenance to keep up with the electricity demand from EVs. Elon Musk recently joined a utility industry meeting, the annual Electric Edison Institute conference, where he shared his predictions. “I can’t emphasize enough, we need more electricity,” Musk said. “However much you think we need; I assure you we need more.”
The good news is that, beyond auto manufacturers, there are utilities and software vendors that are excited about this major infrastructure and technology challenge. New cars have data and capabilities that traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles did not have. Rather than being viewed as a burden to the grid, the innovators in this space are thrilled for EVs vehicles to be a new, smart asset that can actually improve the grid’s resiliency.
The Grid: The Backbone for Achieving Net Zero
The power grid is amazing, comprised of 360,000 miles of transmission lines, enough to circle Earth’s equator more than 14 times. But that’s only part of the equation. The entire grid encompasses an intricate network of power plants and technological systems. Every day as more renewable power generation is built and load management technology for distributed energy resources advances, our grid becomes smarter and more sophisticated. A modern grid will be much more dynamic, enabling the two-way flow of electricity and information, empowering consumers and commercial users, and increasing its overall resiliency and responsiveness.
With vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which enables electric vehicles (EVs) to provide services to the power grid, grid operators can tap into new energy sources. EVs all have batteries large enough to theoretically power a home for several days. One EV, the Ford F-150 Lightning is offering what Ford is calling “Intelligent Backup Power.” According to Ford, the standard range version of the Lightning has a usable battery capacity of 98.0 kilowatt-hours—more than seven Tesla Powerwalls, a well-regarded home battery. With Intelligent Backup Power, the Lightning can pump as much as 9.6 kilowatts into a home, which is enough to power everything needed during a power failure.
If operators tap into a fraction of the total of the EVs plugging into the grid, vehicles such as the Lightning can unlock a huge backup power source, easing the shift from fossil generation to renewables. V2Gs allow utility companies to work with EV owners to create changes, such as shifting when they charge or discharging to serve peak loads. Although this may seem like it will take an incredibly long time to accomplish on an already aging system, we can take the first steps with what we already have: data.
EVs as a Tool for a Resilient Grid
While federal funding continues to be focused on public charging infrastructure, it is key to remember that 88% of EV charging happens at home. Utilities are deploying managed charging programs across the country to balance the electric demand, or shifting at-home charging times to be off-peak demand. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority published a report in 2019 and found that well-designed and managed charging programs could boost the societal benefits of the EV transition from $2.8 billion to $5.1 billion through 2030, money saved by reducing electricity costs and grid upgrades.
Two types of technologies that utilities can leverage to implement residential managed charging programs are Level 2 smart chargers and vehicle telematics. Vehicle telematics data utilizes the EV’s wireless system and GPS to depict the vehicle’s status regarding distance traveled, the average speed during the journey, where and when it is charging, and for how long. Nearly all (97%) of EVs are connected vehicles with built-in 4G or 5G cellular modems that enable this type of data to be collected. The second type of data, charger data, comes directly from the EV charger and provides detailed, at-home charging information. Typical data from the charger includes the length of the charging session and how much energy was used during the session to get the EV to a complete charge. With access to this data, utilities can gain a comprehensive understanding of EV charging patterns and usage, which can inform grid planning and management decisions.
Participation in Managed Charging a Key to Grid Success
The success of managed charging programs will ultimately require maximizing customer participation. Programs that enable load management via multiple technologies, both Level 2 chargers and vehicle telematics, can maximize the number of customers these programs reach. Additionally, coordination and partnership across auto manufacturers and utilities directly, like the pilot program between PG&E and General Motors, will open up additional customer adoption channels. But customer awareness and participation of such programs is not keeping up with program designers’ expectations.
According to a managed charging report published by the Smart Electric Power Alliance, or SEPA, this year, regulators project that about 80% of eligible customers will enroll in a managed charging program; additionally, demand response models with EV forecasts assume enrollment rates between 70% and 100%. However, a study by Parrish et al. found that the majority of programs had less than 33% enrollment rates, with significant opportunities for increasing participation. Closing this “engagement gap,” and getting to the higher enrollment scenarios, is clearly a key piece to successful EV and grid outcomes.
Because there is no question that EVs are coming, and the grid needs to be equipped for increased electricity use, we need organized, data-driven programs from utilities that leverage partnerships with auto manufacturers and charging companies to work toward a common goal of net zero emission transportation. These programs are a great way for utilities to reduce simultaneous grid load while allowing EV owners to learn the best habits for their cars and, subsequently, their wallets.
—Erin D’Amato is Director of Innovation Solutions at Uplight.