Fleet Electrification: Planning for Success

Posted to Itron in the Grid Professionals Group
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Shishir Shekhar's picture
Sr. Product Line Manager - EV Itron Inc

Shishir holds a Master’s Degree in Business Management from Harvard University, USA and a Master’s Degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Northeastern University, USA. Shishir was a...

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  • Aug 29, 2022

This item is part of the Electrification of Transportation - August 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

EV adoption has continued its march forward as EVs look to capitalize on a foothold in the personal-vehicle market and now by spreading into fleet segment. Delivery services, school districts, public transit organizations, car rental companies, construction firms and governmental entities across the nation are planning for inventories that include EVs. Taking that step introduces benefits and challenges to both fleet owners and the utilities that supply their power.

A Complex Process

Investing in EVs will require fleet owners to change mindsets and procedures, and utilities to look at infrastructure and solutions. As fleet owners consider how to migrate to EV use—and utilities predict how they will deliver on increasing electricity demands—both will want to carefully consider how their charging systems and protocols can achieve an array of results.

“We work with both utilities and fleet owners, to deliver behavioral and managed EV charging, resilient communication, and agnostic EVSE to future proof their operations and reduce costs,” said Stefan Zschiegner, vice president, product management at Itron. “What we have found to be the most critical element for successful fleet electrification--for both utilities and fleet owners--is to partner with experienced solution providers that understand the utilities' and fleet owners' needs and have a track record delivering complex end-to-end solutions, which begin with operational goals and needs and include the ability to scale for an evolving future.”

Itron has long-standing relationships with utilities which allow the company to quickly navigate the systems, data and requirements for fleet electrification and real-time grid management at the edge.

“Both fleet owners and utilities are entering unfamiliar territory, with new requirements, regulations and operational models,” says Shishir Shekhar, senior product line manager – electric vehicles at Itron. “We have developed planning tools, simulations and charging management solutions to help them see what their options are in real-time, forecasting financial as well as operational outcomes.”

 Shekhar advises that everyone begin by making sure their planning accounts for the following goals.

Performance. Mission accomplishment remains the non-negotiable requirement for any fleet vehicle. Deliveries are made on time; patrol cars drive where police officers need them to; and buses reliably transport students to and from school. Procuring EVs for a fleet is decidedly different from buying or leasing a fleet of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. With EVs, there are more decisions to make. How am I going to charge these vehicles? What infrastructure do I need? What are my costs? What are the energy costs (the “new fuel costs”)? EVs must perform as expected, and that includes not only the vehicle itself, but also the charging regimen. Charging will need to accommodate vehicle use patterns. For delivery vehicles, which may mean overnight charging prior to first launch in the morning. For taxis or commuter buses, it may include distributed top-offs throughout the day.

Grid Reliability. The hardest loads for a grid to handle are large ones placed simultaneously at the same location, which is what most unmanaged fleet charging will probably cause. If fleets plug in at a centralized facility, they likely cause load to spike in one part of the grid. To prevent electricity disruptions, fleet owners should work with utilities to carefully plan and manage EV charging.

A utility’s mission is represented by grid resiliency and price stability: electrical customers have consistent access to the power they need when they need it, and prices remain affordable and predictable. The idea of economic benefit, too, is straightforward. The long-term benefit should outweigh the near-term costs that pay for the installation of new distribution hardware, for example. By intentionally aligning their goals and working together to achieve them, both fleet owners and utilities can surmount the challenges to EV fleet adoption and improve financial returns for their respective companies.

The role of grid demand in program success: unlike prices at the gas station, the price of electricity often changes throughout a day. More-expensive peak pricing is in effect in the afternoon and evening when workers and students return home and spur electrical demand. When they go to sleep, the load drops, and so does the price of electricity. Demand charges, which are a utility-imposed tariff on high usage, also complicate pricing: if a company exceeds a demand threshold for as little as 15 minutes, it may be penalized with higher pricing on each kilowatt for an entire billing cycle.

Therefore, both utilities and fleet owners will want to leverage managed charging. Deliberately planning the charging operation and executing it precisely will provide maximum benefit.

“This is where a trusted solutions provider can really show their value, because grid orchestration with real time edge data is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a requirement to drive real-time optimization with multiple constraints,” says Zschiegner.

Scalability. Both fleet owners and utilities want solutions that can scale up as EVs take an increasing share of the fleet and consumer vehicle population. It is critical to build a partnership to maneuver this early market all the way through scale to harvest the maximum benefits and avoid stranded investments.

“No one wants to keep putting a new band aid on every few years,” says Shekhar. “And it is more complicated than just having an electrician put in a few more outlets. Companies will develop fleet-charging solutions with an eye to the future. How will their EV use patterns change in coming years? How can charging support those use patterns? What are the logistical, performance and financial ramifications of those future details?”

The benefits of distribution hold across multiple fleets. If several different delivery services locate their centralized charging centers near one another, they may unintentionally combine to become a significant challenge to the grid. Coordination and planning are key. Whether dispersed or centralized, charging that is well-managed will support the grid. Long, slow charging during low-demand times (typically nighttime and early morning) are best. Across a fleet, optimizing protocols will direct staggered charging that calibrates electrical flow and helps preserve grid function.

Even more, utilities will also need to predict and coordinate upgrades. Physically scattered charging may delay significant transmission or distribution upgrades, even though fleet owners add EVs to the utility’s demand. At some point, though, increased EV charging requirements will drive enhancements to the grid. Transformers, voltage regulators, capacitor banks and other grid components represent expensive capital investments for utility companies, and they are long-lead items. Utilities will need to carefully plan their size and location to accommodate not just current EV charging needs, but also those in the future.

Financial benefit. Companies will shave operating costs by charging smartly, since the price of electricity varies with when and where fleets are charged, as well as how quickly. Distributed charging evades the risk of demand surcharge pricing—so can staggered (as opposed to concurrent) charging. Each of these elements factors into charge optimization across a fleet. The most-successful EV fleet management will require the owner to both plan charging operations and manage them well.

On the charge planning side: Itron recommends that fleet owners commit to charging locations only after careful deliberation and consultation with the utility (and coordination with other EV fleet owners). They should consider various charging profiles to determine which returns the best value. Besides cheaper off-peak electricity and more-affordable infrastructure, well thought-out charging can also decrease maintenance costs. Slow-charging profiles prolong battery and charger component life and require less labor.

“We help EV Fleet owners take advantage of distributed energy resources (DERs), which are small-scale power sources,” explained Shekhar. “Companies may combine their solar panels, battery storage or other generation methods with their EV charging apparatus to draw electricity directly from the local source, rather than from the electric company. In fact, many fleet EV operators will find the electron flow goes the other way, too: during peak demand, they can sell the extra charge in their EV batteries to the utility at a premium, then safely replenish those batteries off peak, when electricity costs drop.”

On the charge management side: instead of leaving charging operations to chance, smart fleet owners deliberately optimize them in accordance with decided-on rules.

“Itron’s EV Charging Optimizer is an integrated hardware and software platform for both the energy and transportation ecosystem, which assesses individual EV Fleet charging needs and dynamically managed power allocation according to future performance expectations,” continued Shekhar. “Besides manually connecting the EV to the charging station, no human operators need to make decisions about the charging operation, which removes human error and increases efficiencies.”

The best solutions will be those that feature:

Shared planning. “Companies with EV fleets—and those considering procuring or expanding EV fleets—should begin early conversations with utility companies,” advises Shekhar.

Interoperability. Data sharing and application interoperability are important provisions for optimal EV charging. Utilities should build interoperability into their systems from the start as a precondition.

As EV technology continues its advance in American households, it is breaking into the commercial and rental fleet world. Although some fleet owners may purchase the same EVs as households do, how EV-owning businesses refuel those vehicles involves a decidedly different level of consideration.

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