Utility Companies, Automakers Join Forces To Develop Two-Way Electric Car Charging Control

For some people, electric cars are a glimpse of a utopian future where no fossil fuels are burnt, the air is clean, and your car is recharged from energy generated by photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of your home.

Ford, along with many other automakers, is helping develop a new standard for communication between utility companies and electric cars

Ford, along with many other automakers, is helping develop a new standard for communication between utility companies and electric cars

For others, electric cars herald the dawn of a dark period in history where increased electric demand from recharging electric cars cripples the utility grid, causing frequent brownouts and prompting utility companies to burn more — not less — fossil fuels to keep up with demand.

Here at Transport Evolved, we like the first vision of the electric car future much better than the second. So too it appears, does the majority of automakers and U.S. utility companies.

That’s why General Motors, Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota — along with fifteen regional U.S. utility companies and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) — are working to develop a grid-connected communication system that ensures there’s always enough power to go around.

Announced yesterday, the multi-company collaboration led by the EPRI seeks to build on existing smart grid technologies and vehicle telematics system to develop software that allows utility companies to control not only when electric car charge, but perhaps eventually the rate at which they charge.

It would then be deployed as an opt-in program for electric car owners, with potential financial rewards or perks offered for those who did opt-in to the program.

With the expressed permission of the electric car owner, data would be shared between the onboard telematics provider for their car and the utility company. As well as detail if the car was plugged in or not, the system would know how full the car’s battery pack was as well as any future departure times set by the owner.

At times of peak demand when the grid was at or near capacity, the utility companies could then request partner automakers to halt charging on some or all of the cars plugged in and opted in to the program, reducing demand on the grid.

Ford's infographic explains the basic concept behind the project.

Ford’s infographic explains the basic concept behind the project.

Then, when grid demand was lower or when grid capacity had increased, the utility company could then send the OK for cars to resume charging. At no point would communication occur directly between the car and the utility company: the respective telematics provider for each automaker would act as an intermediary.

While the initial goal of the project is fairly modest, it will also define a set of industry-wide protocols which can be built into all electric vehicles and used by all utility companies to ensure that grid demands are kept to a minimum and electric cars always have enough charge to meet their owners’ needs.

Although you’d be forgiven for thinking this new project is the first time automakers and utility companies have worked together on smoothing out demand on the electrical grid, the idea of interconnected electric cars isn’t new.

The 2015 Chevrolet Spark is one of the vehicles which could make use of the new vehicle to grid interconnection.

The 2015 Chevrolet Spark is one of the vehicles which could make use of the new vehicle to grid interconnection.

Better Place, the now-bankrupt firm which failed in its attempt to offer an holistic electric vehicle infrastructure and battery swap program throughout the State of Israel, used a complex smart grid system to help inform the state-run utility company of when to expect increased power demand.

Similar to the project unveiled this week, it too could dynamically control when and how each of the Renault Fluence Z.E. cars connected to the service charged but this particular benefit of the Better Place model was dramatically and tragically overlooked by most.

In the U.S., General Motors has been running its own test projects involving its OnStar remote telematics service and local utility companies for several years, although its project has been restricted to a small test fleet of cars as part of its Pecan Street research project.

Noticeably absent from the project are Tesla Motors and Nissan.

Noticeably absent from the project are Tesla Motors and Nissan.

Here at Transport Evolved, we like the idea of electric cars being able to help supplement the power needed by electrical grids, perhaps even storing and feeding back power to the grid as required in peak demand periods. But we also think it’s worth noting that of those automakers involved in the project, the two best known electric automakers — Nissan and Tesla Motors — are suspiciously absent from the pilot project.  Moreover, two of the participants — Honda and Toyota — are known for their mistrust of electric vehicle technology and are poised to cease selling electric vehicles altogether in favour of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Do you think letting your utility company control when and how your electric car charges is a useful bonus to electric vehicle ownership, or do you think it will be an unnecessary burden that is bound to backfire one day? Worse still, is it yet another security vulnerability waiting for clever hackers to exploit it?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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  • Joe

    Of course doing this today, pulling a few Kwh from your Nissan LEAF’s nbattery pack during peak use times, would be likely to cause nproblems for drivers since the range is just enough for a day of drivingn for many people. This sort of multi-company collaboration will not be implemented quickly, though.nnnnIt seems very likely to me that over the next decade cars’ battery capacity will increase to the point that Tesla’s now fantastic 85Kwh battery will be commonplace or perhaps even paltry. If so, the idea of using plugged-in cars as supplemental power to avoid brownouts is great; cars will have enough extra capacity to share some without affecting the driver’s needed range for the day in most cases. Drivers who are preparing for a long trip should be able to opt out on that day despite the heavy load on the grid. Everyone wins! (Until the whole thing is hacked and a country is left without private electric transportation and only old, noisy, stinky vehicles are free to continue driving around looking like smug, immune heroes.)

  • vdiv

    Or one could just set a timer in the car for departure time based charging. This proposal says nothing about vehicle to home/grid capabilities, which would alleviate the feared spikes in demand.nnThe purpose of the power utility is to deliver power when needed, not to tell the users when they can use it and how. The message sent by this is that folks, especially the ones with EVs, should seek autonomous ways to generate electricity.

  • Matt Beard

    EVs need to be able to reserve a set amount to sell back if required (say 1 or 2kWh) and the normal charge behaviour is to take charge if the grid is OK, pause when the grid is running low and sell back when demand is high. You can then have a further set of three behaviours (perhaps three buttons on the charger) that are “charge by x:xx time” which will try and only charge when cheap, but will ensure a full charge by the specified time (which will have a default value). Then you have “just charge” which will charge as quickly as reasonable, but will pause when the grid is stressed. Finally you have “charge NOW” which will take even if the grid is stressed. For this to work you will need two things that will take a lot of work. The simple one (as it’s just electrics!) is a charger that can feed back into the grid from the battery. The other is hard because it involves a major shift in the way electricity works – we need variable pricing driven by demand, including buying back power at a good rate when demand is high.nnWith a grid that has a moderate level of systems described above, power supply would be so much easier! At the moment demand varies second-to-second and the grid has to react by spooling power stations up and down and pulling in fast-acting generators while slow systems spool up etc. it should be possible to use the above system, and related demand switching like electric heating and aircon to give a relatively simple manage grid.nnAt the moment, when Corrie ends and 250,000 kettles get turned on power has to be found from various sources including hundreds of small diesel generators. Imagine instead that as each kettle is turned on an EV charger turns off for 1 minute to balance the load. If there is still too much demand a few cars give back half a mile of range.

  • Surya

    Yeah, with the size of the current batteries I wouldn’t want my battery to be drained at any time to take care of peaks. I don’t want to come to the conclusion that I need to use the car unplanned only to find out it is just about empty.nnI can see how they would want to limit the speed of charging, or halt it temporary, and that would be OK with me in most cases, as long as they make sure the car is completely charged by a set time.nBut there certainly would have to be a ‘I need this charge now, give it to me at full speed’ setting.