One story stuck in my mind when I read ReThinkX’s predictions of the future. It was about how the people who made and operated horse drawn carriages in the US did not – at least at first – think that Henry Ford’s Model T was any threat. It was a bit of a curiosity, really, but it would never catch on widely, they thought. And so of course, they weren’t prepared for all the disruptive changes that followed when Americans started buying and driving the cars that began rolling off the assembly line.
I thought about that story when I was reading about how people are starting to use their electric vehicles to power their homes, because that same evolutionary process has been happening all around us for much of the past decade. It is about much more than just how electric vehicles could provide backup power for a home. It is about how the electrical system is changing because of Vehicle to Grid technology – or V2G, as they refer to it.
You might have read about how folks in Texas turned to hybrid pickup trucks, loaned by Ford dealers, to power their houses when the grid power went out. That was a few years after Pecan Street installed the first Vehicle to Grid technology in Austin, Texas. It became part of Austin Energy’s Austin SHINES project, which aims to improve how electricity is generated, delivered and consumed.
The fully electric version of Ford’s Lightning pickup truck takes the next step by offering enough energy to power a home for three days – up to 10 days if people are rationing their electricity use, reports the Washington Post. People in Oklahoma are adopting electric vehicles so fast that real estate developer STK Homes is building in Level 2 charging capability in the garages of its new-build houses to get ahead of surging demand. And the Portuguese vacation island of Porto Santo, with the world’s best beaches, has turned to electric car batteries to store, and then share, the wind and solar energy, instead of using diesel generators.
We are moving towards a future where vehicle batteries will be part of virtual power plants that help balance the grid and power millions of homes. This kind of research has been going on for a while – in Europe since 2015, and the US and UK since about 2018.
In Europe, at the 21st UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. Nissan, maker of the best-selling Nissan LEAF electric vehicle, and Enel, Europe’s second largest power company for installed capacity, agreed to develop a Vehicle 2 Grid system that allows drivers to operate as individual “energy hubs”.
Ultimately, EVs would become ‘a fully integrated part of our national electricity systems right across Europe’, said Nissan Europe chairman Paul Willcox. “We consider integration with electric vehicles a cornerstone of the future of the electric system, as they now have become far more than mobility solutions,” says Enel’s chief innovation officer, Ernesto Ciorra. “V2G is one of the innovations that can improve our life and make the world a better place for all people now and for the generations to come.”
The UK has been carrying out the largest and most diverse activities on V2G, trialling more than 1000 vehicles and V2G charger units since 2018. “Our research has demonstrated that V2G can provide very substantial economic benefits to the power system as well as reduce carbon emissions,” says Prof. Goran Strbac of Imperial College London. “This revealed that the additional flexibility provided by V2G fleets can considerably improve system efficiency and reduce investment in new low-carbon generation, while meeting national decarbonisation targets”.
The potential savings from virtual power plants created by electric vehicles are quite amazing. In France, for example, there are 38 million vehicles and the current electricity generation capacity is 130 GW. If all vehicles on the road were EVs/PHEV, grid integration of the vehicles could generate a virtual power plant of up to 380 GW (three times the national generation capacity of France). And in California, if 14 million zero-emission vehicles are added to garages by 2035, “the collective battery storage could power all of California’s homes for three days,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In the US, the 2021 Inflation Reduction Act has created or enlarged tax incentives for electric cars, electric water heaters, solar panels and other devices whose output and consumption can be coordinated to smooth grid load, Reuters said. “RMI estimates that by 2030, VPPs could reduce U.S. peak demand by 60 gigawatts, the average consumption of 50 million households, and by more than 200 GW by 2050.”
It’s not just vehicles that would be part of virtual power plants, though. “Virtual power plants are portfolios comprised of hundreds or thousands of households and businesses that offer the latent potential of their electric vehicles (EVs), smart thermostats, appliances, batteries, solar arrays, and additional energy assets to support the grid,” explains a new coalition, VP3.
“Virtual power plants pool together thousands of decentralized energy resources like electric vehicles or electric heaters controlled by smart thermostats,” Reuters says. “With permission from customers, they use advanced software to react to electricity shortages with such techniques as switching thousands of households’ batteries, like those in EVs, from charge to discharge mode or prompting electricity-using devices, such as water heaters, to back off their consumption.” VPPs have improved grid reliability in Germany and Australia and some U.S. states, says Reuters.
Now in the US, there is a coalition to develop standards and policies for virtual power plants. Funded by Google Nest and General Motors and led by the clean energy advocacy nonprofit RMI, it’s called the Virtual Power Plant Partnership, or VP3. Founding members also include Ford, General Motors, Google Nest, OhmConnect, Olivine, SPAN, SunPower, Sunrun, SwitchDin, and Virtual Peaker. VP3 aims to help advance affordable, reliable electric sector decarbonization by overcoming barriers to VPP market growth.
GM, Ford, Google partner to promote ‘virtual’ power plants. Reuters, Jan. 11, 2023
Electric vehicles can now power your home for three days. Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2023
Wallbox launches in Canada. News release, Wallbox, Jan. 20, 2022
How Electric Cars and Trucks Improve Grid Reliability. NRDC blog, Sep. 8, 2022
Truck-sized batteries, sophisticated software on tap as Austin Energy imagines renewable future. Austin Business Journal, Jun. 2, 2017
Nissan and ENEL team up to transform electric vehicles into mobile energy sources. Automotive World, Dec. 8, 2015.
V2G project i-rEzEPT impresses with first interim review. Nissan, May 19, 2021
Cover Image: NextKraftwerke, Wikimedia