Plug-In Electric Vehicles That Can Pump Power Back Onto the Grid

Tom Johnson | December 6, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Reversing the usual paradigm, prototype vehicles can draw power from and supply it to the grid

electric van
In the not-too-distant future, the so-called smart power grid may want to have a quick conversation with your plug-in electric vehicle.

In a demonstration in Trenton yesterday of emerging technologies that are driving the development of electric vehicles, the University of Delaware and others showcased prototypes that not only draw electricity from the power grid, but also can deliver rapid bursts of power the other way. And the vehicles get paid for that power.

The technology, dubbed Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G), can help grid operators like PJM Interconnection correct short-terms changes in electricity use, an issue that can affect the stability of the power system. Although the problem, dubbed frequency regulation, is largely unknown to the public, it has attracted the attention of grid operators and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

V2G also can provide a modest source of income for owners of plug-in electric vehicles, which can help offset the higher costs of the cars when compared to conventional vehicles. In a pilot program being run by the University of Delaware, PJM is paying five plug-in electric vehicles each about $200 a month to deliver almost simultaneous service if the power grid is out of balance.

Bigger vehicles, such as cargo vans used by companies with large fleets and even larger electric batteries can earn even more money, according to backers of the technology. These include the university, AC Propulsion, a California-based company, and NRG Energy, a Princeton-based company that is trying to develop the infrastructure for electric vehicles through private investment.

The long-term goal of having electric vehicles become a source of needed power to keep the lights on will become even more important as New Jersey and the nation increase their reliance on intermittent sources of electricity, such as solar and wind, which do not generate power consistently because the sun does not always shine or the wind blow.

“To my mind, it’s the ultimate smart grid application,’’ said James Sherman, director of the Northeast Transportation Electrification Alliance (NTEA), a trade organization pushing to build an infrastructure for electrical vehicles. The technology incorporates software that enables the plug-in electric vehicles, while not running, to quickly switch from drawing power from the grid to storing it and sending it in the other direction, if necessary, a conversation that takes place over the Internet.

FERC also sees the technology as a way to deal with frequency violations, a problem for the grid. It recently recognized that batteries that can push power to the grid are superior and announced a policy to pay a premium for batteries that provide this service. While the payments to consumers and businesses may not be huge, the market is. Last year, PJM paid out $300 million to companies providing frequency regulation service.

“There’s a lot of interest right now,’’ said Scott Fisher, director of policy coordination and management for NRG, which was at the event at a parking garage a block from Trenton’s rail station, one of a handful of places in the state offering electric charging stations for plug-in vehicles. “People understand the value about this, but there’s a lot of blocking and tackling that still needs to be done,’’ he added.

In the short-term, this application probably will not be available until the next generation of plug-in electric vehicles, because car manufacturers have not incorporated the technology into the cars, according to Nathaniel Pearre, part of the University of Delaware V2G team. That could take up five years or so to realize, he said,

The more pressing challenge, according to backers, is convincing large companies with fleets of vehicles to convert some of them to plug-in electric vehicles. Sherman said there have been conversations with Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) and Verizon New Jersey to convert up to 500 cargo vans to the technology, but they will not commit unless the price is right.

Some advocates believe that electric vehicles probably will not happen unless there is an infusion of state or federal financial assistance to reduce the cost difference between them and conventional diesel-fueled vehicles. Raymond Kennard, also of NETA, noted California has spent tens of millions of dollars to convert United Parcel Service trucks to electric vehicles.