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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Conversation on Electric Vehicle Managed Charging and SEPA's Report of Turning EVs into Grid Assets with Erika Myers

image credit: Erika Myers

At the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), the nonprofit organization seeks to shift the world toward a carbon-free future via modern innovations in grid modernization, clean energy technology, electrification, and more. Under the electrification umbrella, SEPA has put much effort towards electrification of the transportation sector through electric vehicles (EVs). 

While many organizations push for EVs because they serve as much more efficient and clean transportation than internal combustion engine vehicles, the thought leaders at SEPA have taken that conversation a step further by highlighting the value of EVs to the utility sector as well. For many years and still to this day many in the utility industry looked with fear towards the coming electrification of the nation's vehicle fleet, as more EVs would inherently expand the required power demand for utilities. Not only that, but typical customer behavior would see EVs being plugged in at home as soon as owners returned home from work in the early evening hours, the same hours known to already be times of peak demand that cause the greatest strain on the grid and require the most fine-tuned management from utilities to ensure that supply can meet demand. 

However, SEPA has been pushing at a different angle, highlighting how deliberate and thoughtful use of a growing EV fleet could in fact become an asset, not a liability, to power providers, specifically through managed charging. Managed charging is the process that allows a utility or another third-party to remotely control EV charging, turning it up, down, on, or off in line with the existing needs of the grid. Much like traditional demand response enables shifting of building power loads to times when demand is less, managed charging does that for the EV sector. Earlier this month SEPA published their Comprehensive Guide to Electric Vehicle Managed Charging that contains in it all the information and research scoured from utilities who have looked into or implemented managed charging and a complete guide to how a future filled with more EV managed charging could provide an invaluable grid asset in a rapidly evolving utility landscape.

Erika Myers, the Principal of Transportation Electrification at SEPA, was kind enough to jump on the phone with me to discuss this important topic and answer some questions I had as a part of Energy Central's Power Perspectives™. This concept of managed charging and utilities gravitating to EVs as an opportunity instead of a cause of dread popped up in recent years. Myers noted that she published a managed charging report in April 2017, which represented the first time that she had studied the topic in depth and the market for it was still very new. However, by late 2018 and early 2019, managed charging seemed to become a hot topic with stakeholders across the country feverishly interested. 

"It was really interesting to see that happen," Myers noted, "It's been an explosion of network service providers and EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) manufacturers that are offering managed charging capable equipment. That may be in part due to a lot of European manufacturers that are offering equipment here in the U.S., but I do think it is more and more related to utility interest in this opportunity, not to mention charging manufacturers and gas station operations who are looking to increase the value of their stations. They're looking to grid services as an opportunity, and you can't do that unless you have some way of selling that service to a grid operator."

While the scale of energy demand being added to the grid via EVs in the future might only be surpassed by the advent of air-conditioning decades ago (though that brought with it challenges that only spanned specific seasons and didn't have to account for the mobility of air conditioning units), EVs are much more than just a source of energy demand. If looked at through the lens of demand response and peak load shifting, EV managed charging provides opportunities not just to prepare utilities for the EV revolution, but it can also enable other clean tech solutions. One chief example is in the world of intermittent renewable energy sources, namely solar and wind. These two energy sources are entirely dependent on weather conditions, and their times of peak generation are almost always coincident with lower daytime demand and a grid already overrun with generation. Energy storage has long been looked at to the solution to this conundrum, but the costs and logistics of widespread utility energy storage are still being worked out. However, customers who are already buying EVs for their own use are inherently building an army of flexible, mobile batteries. With managed charging used the right way, EVs could hasten the shift to clean energy sources by bringing the energy storage needs to the utilities. "The part that excites me the most," Myers noted, "is the ability to soak up excess solar and excess wind as opposed to curtailing. With EVs on the road, they're probably the most flexible loads out there because they're parked for something in the neighborhood of 95% of the time or more. So, if we can take advantage of these batteries that are in vehicles customers have already paid for and are willing to let us somehow manage that, then I think that would be a fantastic asset."

In developing this type of asset, though, Myers did note that it's important for the utility to get involved now-- not only from a planning perspective, but also to capture and set customer behaviors at an early stage. "It's always harder to get someone to change their charging behavior after they've gotten used to something," Myers pointed out. The utility's role can and should be one of trusted energy advisor, helping customers break out of old habits and create new, beneficial ones with their EVs. Not only will utilities reap those direct managed charging benefits, but Myers relayed that this is also a recipe for an overall increase in customer engagement. People aren't getting too excited about efficient water heaters, but EVs are sexy and people want to talk about, show off, and utilize in the best way their vehicles. From a customer strategy perspective, EVs can be the avenue in for utilities to also introduce these same customers to efficiency programs, weatherization programs, demand response programs, or any other type of engagement at the utility that suffers from low enrollment. 

For all the excitement, though, the SEPA report highlights just how new managed EV charging really is. After looking across the industry at anything related to managed charging, Myers noted that they only found 38 utility-run programs to date across the country. This small set of programs is based on the newness of it all, and not lack of interest. "I'm very encouraged by our annual utility demand response survey where we ask utility representatives about their level of interest in managed charging. For the third year in a row, we've seen an increase in utility interest." All that's to say is that this comprehensive report on managed EV charging from SEPA is coming in the early days, and the market for this technology and these strategies is primed to scale up rapidly as sales of EVs across the country increase with them. 

As that transition happens, SEPA plans to be there every step of the way. One of the things that SEPA's been really great at, according to Myers, is bringing together stakeholders across the utility industry. After SEPA's mission expanded from solar to include other distributed energy resources in 2016, the organization feels that their 25+ years of experience with utility companies working on complex and difficult issues puts them in the driver's seat to work on rolling out managed charging in the best possible way for the industry. SEPA has an Electric Vehicle Working Group that totals over 350 members, which helped to bring this managed charging report into fruition, that includes not just utilities but also auto manufacturers, charging infrastructure companies, non-profits, think tanks, academics, government entities and more. Across SEPA, Myers describes how "we're bringing a huge spectrum of different stakeholders to the table. A lot of these, even if they're not members they are still a part of our community. We can't do this alone; we need the help of many different stakeholders."

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