Why Electric Vehicles Will Change How We Think About Electricity

tesla-powerwall-garage_wide

Source: Tesla

Thanks to models like the Tesla Model S and the BMW i8, it’s clear that Electric Vehicles (EVs) can keep gearheads happy and still play an important role in the future of our clean-energy transportation portfolio. In addition to ushering us into a silent, torque-happy utopia, they’re poised to benefit the very grid that supports them, and help revolutionize our energy sector.

For starters, a 240 volt high-speed charging system adds up to five times the kilowatt demand of a typical air conditioning unit to the electric grid. As EVs become more common (especially in densely populated areas), utility companies are exploring how to leverage new smart grid technology to ensure that sections of the grid don’t become overloaded, especially as the number of fast chargers like Tesla’s Superchargers continue to grow.

Not only will smart grid technology allow utilities to map the load profile of a given section of the system, but it allows them to send a signal to the charging station to throttle back power – and therefore the rate of charging – during peak periods (roughly 2 p.m. and midnight). Most utility companies have a lower off-peak rate for energy consumed during low-demand periods of the day, so a smart grid future means that your EV will know to wait to start charging until those lower rates kick in, which will improve your cost per mile.

Ludicrous Speed

Source: Tesla Motors

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean Big Brother is trying to keep you from having enough power in your Model S P90D to be able to enjoy its “Ludicrous” acceleration mode. This is about developing a symbiotic relationship between EVs and the grid. It’s called Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology and, beyond the ability to have their consumption throttled, the biggest benefit EVs and their battery technology offer to the grid is as a distributed storage source for energy. Installing electric transmission lines to accommodate fluctuations in the peak load placed on the grid is extremely expensive and often inefficient. As a result, automakers and utilities are both starting to think of EVs as a way to mitigate the need for new infrastructure.

Here’s how it works: Beyond the daily commute, many vehicles sit idle throughout the day. V2G would allow the utility to draw upon the energy stored in the batteries of these idle cars, which would provide the needed electricity during peak periods. This would be similar to the net metering concept that has been employed by the renewable energy sector for some time. Perhaps most importantly, it means EV owners who chose to opt in to the program would likely be paid for the resources they’re offering to the grid.

Additionally, homes that use renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, would be able to draw off their vehicle’s battery to help satisfy their energy needs as the sun goes down, before charging it overnight during the period with cheaper electricity. Tesla has already recognized the opportunity presented by this concept with the introduction of the Powerwall.

Source: Tesla

Tesla Powerwall. Source: Tesla Motors

The Powerwall is a wall-mounted battery pack similar to the unit found in the Model S. Using a separate pack eliminates the concern that your EV wouldn’t have power when you need it, while providing many of the same benefits. For those with the resources to purchase an expensive Powerwall system in addition to their fast car, it’s a great way to fortify your home energy needs against variability in the grid. For some though (myself included), putting money towards a fast car that could accomplish the same thing sounds like a lot more fun.

As close as we are, there are still challenges that need to be addressed before V2G technology is ready for the mainstream. There will need to be new rates for people that opt in, expanded smart grid technology, buy-in from EV manufacturers to provide cars that can participate, and education for EV owners. But all of these are problems are relatively manageable. There have been several research projects, such as the Edison Project in Denmark, that have been conducted to provide a deeper understanding of how V2G might be implemented on a larger scale.

The automotive world, and human life in general, is poised to change as we adopt new technologies to help minimize our impact on the environment. Yet for many of us, the experience of an EV just doesn’t evoke the same emotions. The loss of the throaty burble of an American V8 or the howl of an Italian V12 represents a sad reality of EVs.

But a “light bulb moment” is that moment of enlightenment that can only be depicted by a light bulb switching on above a person’s head. The idea of a future where your car that can do 0-60 in 2.8 seconds and turn the lights on seems pretty inspiring to me.

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