Think back to the years between flip phones and the introduction of the iPhone. Consumers, originally content with their single-function mobile phones that connected to a 2G cellular network, later became enthusiastic adopters of iPhones and their multifunctional, computer-like capability.
During the 2G era, telecommunications engineers were already mapping out more scalable infrastructure. This infrastructure could handle higher data rates to support the full potential of iPhones, instead of the voice-only phones that were the current state-of-the-art. The development of the US’s 3G, 4G, and presently 5G cellular networks is a testament to collaboration between private sector innovation and government’s policy and fiscal support for new emerging technology.
The nation’s electric vehicle (EV) industry will progress down a similar path. While Federal agencies are catalysing EV adoption and deploying initial charging infrastructure during this first stage of EVs, engineers are already focused on the next generation of EV functionality. In order to catapult EVs beyond their predominant single-function perception, government entities need to double down on the technology’s brimming potential now.
Just as cell phones evolved, EVs are already expanding beyond their initial offering of a gas-free mode of transportation into vehicle-to-everything (V2X) capabilities. Automakers are now offering EVs that can provide electricity for lights, tools, and other off-board devices at a remote site where there is no grid connection, a feature known as vehicle-to-load (V2L). Other EVs have packages that enable an EV to power the owner’s home during a power outage, part of a broader suite of vehicle grid integration (VGI) features that allow an EV to send electricity back to the same electric network that originally charged it. So, in addition to increasing the US’ climate resilience, EVs also are beginning to provide users with energy flexibility.
EVs hold the promise of delivering energy everywhere that will benefit not only EV owners, but also everyone who uses the electricity networks they plug into. In the future, EVs will provide electricity back to the grid at critical times using vehicle-to-grid (V2G). When thousands of EVs (and other devices) are aggregated and operated in a coordinated fashion with thousands of other vehicles, they’ll deliver energy and act like a ‘virtual’ power plant (VPP) that can temporarily provide as much electricity as a traditional power generating station. In the process, EVs will do something that no gas-powered vehicle can do: earn money for their owners while they are parked. And when participating in a VPP, EVs allow the electric network to handle higher peak electricity demand, thus making it more resilient to natural disasters and weather-related outages. VPPs extend an EV’s benefit beyond the vehicle’s owner, improving the electricity grid for everyone and delivering critical benefits at a lower cost than traditional infrastructure.
But realising the V2X vision will require overcoming some key challenges. Equipment vendors need to offer more types of bi-directional chargers that allow EVs to both supply and absorb electricity, and the chargers need to be more affordable. Those chargers also need to work with a variety of EV makes and models, so standards that ensure interoperability need to be developed. And the next phase of cyber security solutions that ensure V2G isn’t vulnerable to hackers’ attempts to disrupt power delivery must be integrated into charging equipment and vehicles. In addition, the national electricity distribution system needs an upgrade: it was originally designed for one-way delivery of power to homes and businesses, not for two-way power flows. Finally, electric utilities need to define V2G tariffs and rules that make it easy for EV owners to connect their vehicles and receive payment for providing grid services.
EVs will do something that no gas-powered vehicle can do: earn money for their owners while they are parked
Just as mobile handsets and wireless networks evolved together, the V2X vision requires coordinated effort among all its parts. Forward-thinking research efforts such as the Department of Energy’s Electric Vehicles at Scale Lab Consortium are already working to solve the technical challenges. Future programmes such as the Department of Transportation’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency—Infrastructure (ARPA-I)—may also play a role in developing critical V2X infrastructure solutions to ensure EVs and their charging technology are developed in lockstep.
As charging infrastructure is deployed, it needs to be done in a way that will facilitate easy upgrades in the future. Especially to enable VPPs, a large number of chargers will be required in locations where vehicles are parked for long periods of time, including homes, workplaces, and other sites like airport parking garages. That will ensure that many EVs remain connected to the charging network, ready to absorb cheap renewable power when it is most abundant and then provide electricity back to the grid during times of peak demand. Once these charging sites are established, the equipment can be upgraded in the future when low-cost V2G-enabled charging technology becomes more widely available.
Moving towards a future with V2X won’t be easy. It will require coordinated development of EVs and charging technology, and collaboration between government agencies and industrial players. But it is exactly the type of challenge needed to be taken on now to realise the full potential of EVs and ensure they provide benefits to all Americans.
About the author: Reid ‘Rusty’ Heffner is Chief Technologist in Booz Allen Hamilton’s Climate and Infrastructure Practice