Better Connections: EVs and a Bigger, Smarter Grid

Automakers like Ford and utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric are working hard to make sure EVs get connected to the Smart Grid in smart ways to fulfill the promise of a sustainable future in America.
At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in January Ford unveiled ambitious plans to take the company “to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data”, as CEO Mark Field put it. The recently announced expansion of its Silicon Valley Research and Innovation Center demonstrates the OEMs commitment to reach those goals.
Ford has big plans on improving the infrastructure for EVs. As the company’s manager of electric vehicle infrastructure and smart grid technology, Dave McCreadie is working on a cloud based communication platform with the purpose to facilitate the connection between EVs and the electric grid. His task: to make charging easier for both consumers and utility companies. 
“Today each manufacturer has its own proprietary communication system. Ford has the MyFord mobile app that helps you manage your charging and get your vehicle ready at a certain time when you have to leave”, McCreadie explains. 
Other automakers like GM and BMW have similar systems. But each electric utility uses a different communication protocol to connect with EVs made by different car companies. This causes an unnecessary “hassle”; one that McCreadie is aiming to end by putting a central server cloud in between the utilities on one side and the automakers on the other side. 
The Ford exec say, “It sets up bidirectional communication between the grid and the cars so that all these utilities have to send out just one message – instead of a lot more. This gets into the central cloud and that message is then distributed to the different manufactures.” The OEMs then act upon the communication by, for example, stopping, starting or slowing the charging process.
McCreadie says this cloud is still in the proof of concept phase at Ford but has already been successfully tested: “We showed how a single grid message was sent and cars from every manufacturer stopped their charging simultaneously. This was the first time this was done with such a wide array of vehicles.” The manager plans to expand this project by testing different kinds of messages sent between cars and grid. 
Another project McCreadie is involved with is Parking Spotter. This is software that utilizes the sensor data of Ford vehicles to detect open parking spots in cities and mapping them to the cloud. Other Ford drivers can then find these spots using their on-board navigation system or smartphone. 
“We all struggle with finding parking space. Parking Spotter helps drivers find a nearby parking space. You save time and consequently save money.” the Ford exec says. 
Although this software is not limited to EVs, it can make traffic less congested and all participating cars –electric or powered by fossil fuels – more energy efficient. To that same end Ford is working on autonomous or semi-autonomous parking, so called avatar valet parking. As an added feature this could make EVs more versatile and attractive for use in urban environments. 
Making EVs smarter by increasing connectivity to, and communication with the grid will certainly help foster sustainability. In cars and at home, Ford is also working with Nest Thermostat to reduce heating energy use when leaving the house. 
But American infrastructure has got to be able support an increase in EVs. In their recent study The Market for Electric Vehicles: Indirect Network Effects and Policy Impacts researchers Shanjun Li and Lang Tong of Cornell University observe that both public and utility companies are in vicious feedback loop. 
Consumers see a lack of charging points as a reason not to buy EVs, while utility companies do not invest in infrastructure because of these reluctant consumers. Currently the charging points in the US number around 27.000, according to the Department of Energy. Utility companies are trying to break out of this feedback loop. Already they are stepping up to do their part in increasing the number and availability of charging points. 
In January Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) asked state regulators in California for permission to expand its infrastructure for EVs. The company hopes to start building 25000 charging points as soon as possible to increase its already existing infrastructure tenfold, says Chief of Communications Jonathan Marshall. That would also significantly boost the overall charging points in the state, which the Department of Energy puts at more than 7000.
If approved, the new EV-charging points of PG&E would significantly contribute to the ambitious goals the California Governor’s Office set for 2050: reducing greenhouse emissions by 80 percent and back below 1990 levels. 
According to Marshall, PG&E’s charging points could potentially power a quarter of the 1.5 million zero emission vehicles that California officials want to see driving within its state lines in the near future. “Automakers are strongly supportive of the expansion of EV infrastructure”, says Marshall. He says the initiative helps the market grow by also “increasing the convenience of EV owners.” 
But PG&E isn’t just interested in scaling their infrastructure, the utility company also wants to make it smarter – just like Ford. In collaboration with IBM and Honda it is working on connecting EVs with the power grid to communicate data like grid conditions and battery state to more efficiently charge vehicles. 
PG&E is also currently collaborating with BMW to repurpose batteries to support the power grid when EVs are not used. With the proper incentives for car owners the vehicles might replace fossil fuel powered generators used at peak hours when electricity demand exceeds the supply. 
But as Ford’s McCreadie points out, legislation and proper safety precautions might not yet be ready to provide such services. “When there’s an outage you don’t want an electrical worker getting a hundred volt shock while working to restore power.”  
PG&E is not alone in its plans of investing in American EV infrastructure. The White House is doing its part in stimulating businesses to adopt EVs and invest in the technology. And at the Electric Drive Congress in Washington, Volkswagen of America announced it would spend 10 million dollars to that end. The automaker also formed a partnership with BMW and ChargePoint, Inc. to build charging stations along highways in California, Portland, Massachusetts and Washington.
The road towards sustainability isn´t just paved with good intentions as companies like Ford and PG&E show. The current investments of utility companies and automakers in infrastructure and connecting EVs to it in smart ways have the potential of turning mobility and sustainability into each other’s driving force.   

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *