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The “Smart Grid” and EVs, oh my!

April 17, 2012
One of the biggest challenges facing the effort to electrify transportation in the U.S. is how to recharge all-electric trucks and buses without overloading a power generation and distribution system that’s already maxed out and extremely creaky to boot. The key, of course, is to get electric vehicles (EVs) and those hybrids with plug-in recharging capability to “fuel up” during off-peak hours, when the load on the U.S. power grid is at its lowest.

One of the biggest challenges facing the effort to electrify transportation in the U.S. is how to recharge all-electric trucks and buses without overloading a power generation and distribution system that’s already maxed out and extremely creaky to boot.

The key, of course, is to get electric vehicles (EVs) and those hybrids with plug-in recharging capability to “fuel up” during off-peak hours, when the load on the U.S. power grid is at its lowest.

You might think that’s easy, but it’s not simply because the power grid in use not only in the U.S. but across much of the world is a “dumb” system – meaning there’s preciously little ability built within these systems to manage energy demand.

That’s where the hubbub about “Smart Grid” technology comes into play – boosting the “intelligence” of the power grid so large numbers of EVs and plug-in hybrids can be added to the roadways without crashing the electric energy networks that keep the lights, computers, iPods, stereos, and air conditioners on and humming across the country.

[Below you’ll find a short overview of the “Smart Grid” theory provided by IBM.]

Making the power grind “smart” is crucial as the energy requirements for electric vehicles will challenge the current power grid as plug-in vehicle counts continue to grow to an expected 2.9 million worldwide by 2017, according to consulting firm Pike Research.

To that end, then, IBM, American Honda Motor Co., and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) are working on a new pilot project that will allow communication between electric vehicles (EVs) and the power grid.

This project has the potential to ease the infrastructure and consumer concerns associated with the mass adoption of EVs, by adding another layer of agility to the EV charging process, noted Allan Schurr, VP-strategy and development for IBM's global energy and utilities division.

He explained that providing “intelligence” to the power grid will help make charging seamless for consumers, while ensuring the electricity source is reliable and the infrastructure is stable.

"The growth and success of EV adoption is reliant upon many factors, ranging from vehicle price and performance, to infrastructure readiness, to the consumer experience – a scope that cannot be addressed by one sole industry,” Schurr stressed.

“This project represents a significant step towards building an intelligent infrastructure that integrates capabilities and technologies across three major players,” he added. “We are creating a system that allows electric vehicles to communicate with the power grid – this is groundbreaking.”

[IBM is conducting a similar project in Europe with EKZ, the electricity utility provider of the Canton of Zurich in Switzerland.]

This demonstration project combines grid and vehicle data to create an individualized charging plan for Honda's Fit EV using IBM's cloud based software platform. By utilizing the existing in-vehicle communications system in the Honda Fit EV, the electric vehicle can interact with utilities and the grid, creating a direct channel for sending and receiving usage information that could improve local grid management, noted Saul Zambrano, senior director for consumer products for PG&E.

"This pilot project with IBM and Honda will help us demonstrate that third-party providers have the systems and capabilities to help meet some of the challenges that electric vehicles could place on the power grid as their adoption increases in the coming years," he said. "With updated charging patterns for EVs, we have the ability if needed, to shift demand to non-peak times to ensure the reliability of the grid so that we can continue to deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers."

Once plugged into a charge post, the Honda Fit EV initiates a charge request via the vehicles telematics system, an integrated telecommunication application that is often used for navigation. This request is sent to IBM’s Electric Vehicle Enablement Platform (EVEP) where vehicle data such as battery state and grid data received from PG&E, is combined to create an optimized charge schedule, which is then communicated back to the vehicle in seconds.

Using this aggregated data, the vehicle has the intelligence to charge to the level that is needed while factoring any current grid constraints, added Steven Center, VP of the environmental business development office at American Honda – providing “smart charging” capability to enable energy providers to manage the power used by EVs during peak times by instructing vehicles to delay or adjust charging if required.

Additionally, the IBM EVEP system can collate historical EV charging data and create a profile that can be used to forecast the location and duration of EV charge loads. For example, the program can determine how many EVs are plugged in one neighborhood and the time it will take for each to reach a full charge. This level of insight will allow utilities to optimize grid operations and help reduce the chance of outages – a possible concern as the number of EVs increase, noted IBM’s Schurr.

[Google is trying to do something similar on its own with its unique “Gfleet” car sharing program, which right now includes 30 EVs that repower from the largest corporate EV charging infrastructure that exists in the U.S.]

Another important piece to the EV recharging debate, however, is the issue of “customer convenience.” To that end, IBM is trying to use its cloud-based EVEP system to provide charge post location information and availability directly to the EV, using the telematics and satellite-linked navigation to guide the driver to the most convenient place to charge.

Along with a smart phone application that displays EV battery level, range of travel distance, vehicle location, and current energy costs in real time coupled to the ability to communicate directly with charging stations via a GPS system should offer consumers a uniquely "connected" driving experience, IBM’s Schurr explained.

Will this work? It’s too early to tell of course. But many current EV proponents – especially Frederick Smith, the founder, chairman and CEO of global delivery giant FedEx– believe the U.S. in particular is well positioned to electrify transportation successfully, especially if the “Smart Grid” theory is put into practice.

“We cannot encourage the purchase of electric cars and then not have the generation capacity to power them, the transmission capacity to deliver that power to the consumers who need it, or the smart grid technology that will be required to handle those vehicles as we plug them in and out of the grid,” he explained in a speech a few years ago. “These are all crucial issues, and we need to work on all of them in sync. Without one, the others are useless. And without all three, this entire venture [transportation electrification] could put us at greater risk.”

Smith added that one of the great advantages the U.S. has in the EV world is that a “refueling” system is already place. “That is not the case for other possible alternatives to petroleum, such as natural gas or alcohol-based fuels, for which entirely new purpose-built, nationwide infrastructures would have to be designed and constructed from scratch,” he noted.

And as electrical wires cross this country, reaching into every home and building, the U.S. transportation industry must take that base and build upon it, Smith said.

“Electrical power is generated from largely domestic sources whose prices are more stable and mostly disconnected from volatile world markets,” he pointed out. “It can be solar, it can be hydroelectric, it can be wind, it can and should be increasingly nuclear, it can be coal, it can be natural gas. So with cars powered by electricity, no one fuel source—or producer—would be able to hold our transportation system and our economy hostage the way a single nation can disrupt the flow of petroleum today.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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