DOE wants to know: How can EVs give back to ‘the grid’

Electric vehicles might provide more than everyday transportation.

The U.S. Department of Energy believes the ever-growing number of EVs on the road can serve as energy-storage devices that supply electricity — and resilience — throughout the country’s electrical grid.

The department took steps to hasten that possibility last week by establishing a first-of-its-kind agreement between itself, national laboratories, state and local governments, utility companies, automakers and others to explore the feasibility of widespread bidirectional charging.

Eighteen participating organizations unveiled the collaboration last week at the Net Zero Plus Electrical Training Institute in metro Los Angeles, with plans to conduct demonstration projects and collect data. Ford Motor Co., General Motors, BYD Motors Inc. and Lucid Motors signed the memorandum of understanding.

The push comes as more Americans are buying electric vehicles. Nearly 150,000 were sold in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to a Kelley Blue Book report, and EV market share rose to a record 4.5 percent of new-car sales.

But the urgency goes beyond light-duty passenger vehicles. The bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted in November allocated $5 billion for the purchase of electric school buses, for example, and the first $500 million is expected to become available within weeks.

Between cars and buses, “everybody now knows this electrification thing is real and is going to happen, and they want to figure it out,” said Kevin Matthews, head of electrification at First Student Inc., the operator of more than 42,000 school buses for approximately 1,100 school districts across North America.

“Utilities know they will have to charge these things, and when you look at fleets with 300 to 400 buses on a single lot, that’s a big issue for the utilities that provide energy to charge that,” he said. “So understanding how they can work with us can really assist them in not only getting more buses electrified, but they can then take that knowledge and apply it to other types of fleets.”

The scope of the opportunity is expected to substantially expand. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 130 million electric vehicles on roads globally by 2030. While they will be thirsty for electricity, the Department of Energy estimates they’ll also contain 10 times the amount of storage needed by the grid.

Those vehicles could function as mobile batteries, supplying power to hospitals and water-treatment systems during emergencies. In everyday use, the vehicles could supply power that stabilizes the grid when energy from renewable resources is not available.

Vehicle owners could use their EVs to run their homes during power outages or machinery at remote job sites — two uses that Ford has touted for its electric F-150 Lightning pickup. Fleet operators could reduce overhead costs and earn money by selling their vehicle electricity back to the grid.

In her 2016 book, The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, Gretchen Bakke says that grid leaders “see an ingenious form of storage that doesn’t rely upon the quirks of geology or climate, that blends seamlessly into its environment and that can be made to work for tiny grid imbalances as well as big ones.”

Without a critical mass of vehicles, it has been difficult to convene utility companies, automakers, policymakers and others to come up with standards and policies and install infrastructure. That’s what the group assembled by the Energy Department intends to do.

Starting in California, the group will evaluate the feasibility of widespread vehicle-to-grid, vehicle-to-building and vehicle-to-load capabilities, bundled together under the V2X abbreviation that has separately been used by the industry to define technologies that allow cars to share information with one another and infrastructure.

The partnership may allow fledgling technologies developed within the national labs to be commercially evaluated and deployed sooner. Similar projects may be rolled out in other states at a later date.

“It’s critical to have an entity like DOE convene the people who can make this happen in a structured way and bring resources that a single state may not have,” Matthews said. “Having the standards in place to access and participate in both front-of-meter and behind-the-meter applications is really important.”

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