“Vehicle to Grid: Electric Vehicles will Cause Power Cuts!”

Many of us will have read the news stories about electric vehicles, vehicle to grid, and the immeasurable harm they will cause on the electric power grid. 

We are told, if the UK goes for mass adoption of electric vehicles, the chances are they will over-load the power-grid and cause countrywide blackouts.

The truth, however, is that there is great potential for electric vehicles to have a more positive impact on the grid, and in fact, electric vehicles may be one of the quickest ways to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and move forward with a stronger, more resilient and cleaner energy system.

The Energy System and PEAK Demand

The UK electricity grid, like most others, globally, is built around our PEAK demand requirements.  In other words, that time of day when you and I return home, to make dinner, brew a cup of tea, watch Coronation Street and bathe the children, is the time of day when we put our maximum demand for electricity on the grid.  It’s also the period where the grid is most carbon-intensive, without getting technical, this is when we fire up the coal-fired power stations, to turn up the gas.

As it stands if its particularly calm and cloudy day and we can’t rely solely on renewable energy, this is the time that our grid becomes “dirty”.

So then, if we plug in millions of electric vehicles, we put more demand on the system and the dirtier it gets? Hold that thought…

Interestingly, there are other times of the day where the energy being produced is beyond our requirements.  There are many examples of sunny and windy days where renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind combined with the constant nuclear energy, produces more energy than we need. During these times the grid produces energy with virtually zero reliance on fossil fuels.

Battery Storage is the Panacea of Grid Capacity

The key to our future grid strategies is batteries i.e. a way of storing excess capacity from renewable energy to use it later.  The UK grid already has batteries and has had for many years; one example is the Dinorwig Power Station (Google it, its fascinating). Many would not recognise it as our usual perception of a battery, but it works like one, effectively pumping water uphill to a big lake at the top during the night and storing it there as future energy.  When the grid then needs a boost, the sluice gates are opened, the water pours through a big tube, turns some turbines and creates energy.  The process is repeated regularly.

In the UK we are looking at dozens of ways to store energy in batteries and one of the potentially easiest and quickest ways of doing this is with electric vehicles, not least because the technology to do this already exists and is driving around today.

Electric Vehicles and the Future of Vehicle to Grid

Consider how your vehicle is used.  In many cases, the car will be parked up all night, will be used for a commute to work, where all day it is parked up again and then used to go home again in the evening, with maybe the odd trip to the gym, the supermarket, or similar. Through the data we have collected over thousands of drivers and millions of journeys we often see vehicles utilised no more than 2%-4% of the time with the average daily mileage in the UK somewhere around 21 miles a day. The rest of the time a vehicle is stationary.

Now think of this vehicle as an electric vehicle, even the ones with the smallest batteries by today’s standards have at least 100 miles of range in them and can charge back to full in 4 hours.

This vehicle that is being driven just 21 miles a day for an hour or two has a mass of unharnessed potential, it has batteries full of energy (or at least partly full) that could be used.

If used as grid batteries thousands of vehicles all over the UK could help to completely decarbonise our grid, storing excess capacity to be used at a later date and time when the network needs it.  These vehicles could be charged overnight or during times of excess capacity and the residual energy used at a time when the grid is at peak demand

To help you understand the potential, let me run a few potential scenarios past you.

Scenario 1: The home user

Picture Bob – he has a typical four-bedroom house in suburbia and works as a software developer at a local company, he uses his vehicle mainly for commuting and as “dads taxi” at the weekend. Bob drives a 30Kwh Nissan Leaf and although he only travels about 21 miles a day he plugs this vehicle in every single day at 5:30pm where it tops his battery up from about 90% full to 100% complete. Bob also has solar panels.

Under a (simplified) V2G scenario Bobs situation could change, for the better:

  1. Firstly Bob continues to do exactly as he does today, his usage profile remains unchanged.
  2. When plugging his vehicle in at 5:30 the grid recognises this asset and recognises the fact that it has the energy to provide back to the grid, it also knows (because Bob has indicated) that Bob won’t be using his car for hours.
  3. Via his phone Bob has already set the parameters so that the vehicle will never deplete charge below 20% and will not be available on Thursdays as he needs to go to his mindfulness session followed by Krav Maga.
  4. The grid starts to hit capacity and as a result will take energy from Bob’s car (along with thousands of others) via a bi-directional charger this is an alternative to fossil-fuelled power stations.
  5. At around 8pm the grid has taken all the energy it needs and then sends a message to start charging the vehicle again.  All this happens while Bob is asleep.
  6. Bob wakes up, has his breakfast commutes to work and the process starts all over again.

Scenario 2: The airport

As I am sure you can appreciate running an airport can be a particularly energy-hungry endeavour, with an airport such as Birmingham using around 41.5 m kWh of energy a year is costing ITRO £6m per annum.

Like most major airports, Birmingham has plans to expand, and those plans could require an uplift in the requirements of the grid to provide energy, plans that will take time to get off the ground.

Consider, however, how V2G enabled electric vehicles could benefit these expansion plans and help to reduce costs:

  1. Firstly lets consider the profile of these vehicles.  Vehicles left at airports, especially those in the long-stay are parked up any time from 4 days to as long as a month, that’s an entire month where the vehicle is parked doing nothing.
  2. Now consider if Birmingham airport installed 100 bi-directional V2G charge points which were regularly filled to capacity with vehicles containing batteries averaging around 50Kwh.
  3. Each of these vehicles could be used to store energy during the low energy demand periods for from the solar panels the BHX have installed.
  4. When the airport then has a spike in demand, the energy in these vehicles could be used to control this requirement.
  5. It means the vehicles could be charged when costs are low and discharged when costs are high, meaning that BHX reduce some of their energy costs
  6. The car owner could be incentivised by being able to park at a reduced or even free parking close to the terminal building.
  7. BHX gain access to these vehicles for the full two weeks the customer is on holiday
  8. It has even been proven by Warwick university that this type of deep-cycle charge/discharge, could be beneficial for the vehicle, massaging the battery, and improving battery longevity.
  9. As a regular commuter and flyer, I would certainly be interested. 
  10. The same scenario could work for the airports, and trains stations across the globe.

Scenario 3: Royal Mail

I use Royal Mail as an example as it’s a world-renowned company who also happen to run a very significant fleet of vehicles. However, the same could be said for many other UK and global companies with fleets of cars and vans.

The fleet of Royal Mail vehicles in many respects can be considered as mobile storage facilities. Pat, the postman, will pick up his load of letters, and small parcels to pack into the van and then take his bag to a specific street. On foot the postman will then deliver the letters, returning to the postal van to pick up the next bag and do the same. Granted this is not the situation for all Royal Mail workers, but it is for some. At the end of the day, the van is dropped back to a depot ready to do the same again.

Now interestingly in many cases, although the van is absolutely essential, it does not end up doing particularly high mileage.  Therefore many of these vehicles, if electric, would return to base with significant residual charge in the batteries.

Consider the scenario:

  • Postman picks up his fully charged van from the depot with his daily delivery of letters and parcels.
  • He drives about as normal doing the deliveries and at the end of the day (around 4 pm) returns to base with around 80% of his battery capacity.
  • Royal Mail has been forward-thinking and across its entire network of regional depots (where possible) have installed bidirectional chargers.
  • Across the 30,000 vehicles, they have purchased that are V2G capable they have around 1,500,000 kWh of capacity.  Bearing in mind, this is a simplified overview, and without going into the technicalities of delivering that energy to the grid, what Royal Mail effectively have is the power capacity of a sizeable power station. 
  • Now the exciting thing for Royal Mail is that these vehicles can then be charged up at night when energy costs are lower and the energy sold back to the grid when the energy price is higher, so these vehicles that were previously sitting idle could now be a source of income for Royal Mail.

This sounds great, but it also seems years away:

Considering the above scenarios, you may think that they sound like valid ideas, but you may also consider that these scenarios are years away. Actually, this is all possible today.  The Nissan Leaf is already V2G capable and when combined with the right type of charger could operate under the scenarios above.

There are also around 21 amazing projects currently being funded by the UK government, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/30-million-investment-in-revolutionary-v2g-technologies looking at V2G technologies. Some of these projects focus on precisely the scenarios above and aim to not only prove the technology but to also prove the business model.

So driving to your local train station, plugging in your car and your car’s battery is used while you are away may be closer than you think.  Moreover, while your car is sat there you could be receiving money back or alternatives, such as free parking.

About Innovate UK funded Project V2GO

The reason for writing this overview is to inform you about V2G about the benefits of V2G.  It’s also an opportunity to tell you about an exciting V2G project in which we participate called V2GO which is short for Vehicle to Grid Oxford.

The Public Summary of the project is as follows:

  • V2GO (Vehicle-To-Grid Oxford) is an Innovate UK funded project led by EDF Energy and involves companies; Arrival, CleanCar.io, EO Charging, Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford University and Upside Energy.
  • Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technologies allow the energy storage capacity of Electric Vehicle (EV) batteries to be used to deliver electricity back into the grid to power homes and businesses.
  • The energy services provided by V2G and EVs can potentially create new revenue streams and reduce fleet operating costs.

V2GO aims

  • Demonstrate the benefits of EV adoption and value of V2G and Smart Charging for fleet operators.
  • Compare and assess the benefits of EV adoption and V2G against existing operating systems and practices.
  • Understand how modifications to the fleet operation or charging patterns could help to optimise overall value.
  • Provide real-world experience of V2G and the technology to trial participants and stakeholders.

Sounds interesting, you may say, but the details of the projects make for some (in my view) exciting reading.  Some of the key takeaway points are as follows:

  • V2GO aims to provide a working solution for companies with depot based vehicles.  Similar to scenario three above, where drivers return their vehicles to a base such as a depot each night.
  • The project will also look mainly at vans; these vans are the electric vans made by a company in Oxford Arrival https://arrival.com/ 
  • The project aims to put around 100 real-world demonstrators into approximately 15 companies in the UK.
  • We aim to not only prove if the technology works, but we are also challenging if there is a business model for this technology.  In other words, is it worth the extra investment to go for a V2G solution as opposed to a Smart unidirectional charger (smart chargers are chargers that talk to the grid and can be turned on and off and throttled if required).

How are We Participating In The Project

Our view is that when designing a future game-changer like Vehicle-to-Grid which impacts on future transport and energy systems it’s essential to give the project the best chance of success and learn as much as we possibly can.

For us being able to understand how the vehicles are being used today and how that might change under V2G is essential. We then have an understanding of what the potential solutions and systems might look like, how they will work, and how and why people and customers will benefit.

Take a look at our interviews with the V2GO team.

Our participation in the project is loaded mainly towards the front end of the project and can be summarised as follows:

  • After some contractual negotiations we gain a list of potentially suitable vehicles, which we load into the CleanCar system, and the next stage is to send out our GPS data loggers.
  • The GPS data loggers arrive at the participant individually boxed, and the participant must unpackage them and place them into the 12v or 24v cigarette lighter socket.
  • The next step is the drivers go about their regular daily routine, while the GPS devices collect data which it sends via the mobile 3g network to our secure servers.
  • Once we have received a reasonable amount of data, we produce our V2GO reporting, which shows:
    • If the vehicle could be replaced by a V2G enabled Arrival Van
    • The potential residual battery in a vehicle when it returns to base each day
    • The potential value of energy exported to the grid
    • Potential cost savings by making the switch
    • Potential charging infrastructure requirements.

In short, we will be collecting GPS data about how a fleet uses its vehicles today so we can show if V2G could work and what potential benefits it delivers.  In many respects, it’s a kind of blueprint for change.

It’s all about the collaboration:

Through our involvement in v2go, it’s reaffirmed my conviction that collaboration on projects like this is essential.  Each of the collaborators brings something different to the party with knowledge and experience in different areas and sectors.  We bring with us experience in fleet, systems and big data but our partners have experience in power generation, grid infrastructure, developing electric vehicles, battery storage, charge points and much more.  The project is undoubtedly adventurous and sizeable but with the right consortium, I feel confident we will deliver results in this exciting area of development.

If you would like to discover more about v2go or participate, please get in by visiting www.v2go.org 

Anyway, thanks for reading.