How electric cars can save the US power grid

Last month, California finalized the rule that would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. Obviously, that would speed up adoption electric cars and encourage other states to do the same. (Oregon already followed the example of California.) But it’s less obvious that ditching carbon-emitting cars could help shore up the United States’ ancient, creaky electric grid.

Cars are no longer just modes of transportation; they are increasingly integrated into the larger energy infrastructure. If your electric car is parked in your garage fully charged (cars are usually parked 95 percent of the time) and you lose power, this large battery allows you to keep the lights on. And if there is a sudden surge in demand for the network, because everyone wants to turn on the air conditioner during heat wave or their heat during a deep freeze—utility services could be paid by house owners their excess battery power.

This is known as two-way or car to network charging (aka V2G), and it’s “one of the legitimate game-changers,” says Clifford Rechtshafen, commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission. “If all electric vehicles in the state plug into the grid during peak loads and feed energy back into the grid, they will act like giant batteries. We could use them to significantly relieve the load on the network during periods of greatest need.”

It’s still early days for V2G. More than 100 V2G pilots are scattered around the world, although most of them in Europe. The California experiments were limited to small test programs. However, more car manufacturers and chargers are offering two-way charging, and experts believe the concept could work on a large scale. According to A recent assessment. Natural Resources Defense Council California alone could have 14 million by 2035 assessments. If only local utilities could harness all those batteries, they could power every home in the state for three days.

When someone plugs a car into an outlet to charge it, the alternating current (AC) is converted to a direct current voltage that is stored in the car’s battery. If the owner has a bi-directional charger, the DC power can be converted back to AC and added to the grid.

Bidirectional chargers are far from common today and can be expensive, often requiring additional specialized equipment. Nevertheless, car manufacturers and other companies are beginning to deploy them to help EV owners contribute to the grid or store and then convert the energy for their own purposes. Ford’s new electric F-150 can power a home for up to three days – a major advantage a dystopia destroyed by climate change is coming Volkswagen has been touting the bi-directional charging capabilities of its latest and upcoming electric vehicles. This month only Nissan approved the first bi-directional charger for the all-electric Leaf, which has been on sale in the US for nearly 12 years.

But utilities are likely to play the biggest role in ushering in a new era of power grids, he says Max Baumhefner, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. One simple way to encourage EV drivers to help the grid is to offer ‘time-of-use’ tariffs, making it cheaper for owners to charge at times when the grid is less taxed – such as when most people are sleeping at night. After observing the success of these betting programs for 10 years, Baumhefner concluded that “if we push people a little bit, they will respond.” Such a strategy can effectively contain costs for all network users, helping utilities make more efficient use of the infrastructure they’ve already paid for and avoid upgrades.

The trick will be standardization, says Kathy Sloan, vice president of customer programs and services for utility Southern California Edison. As more people start sending battery charge back into the grid, it would be helpful if the various electric vehicles and charging systems were technologically integrated. “It’s really similar to what we’ve seen in the solar industry,” says Sloan. “This was the first time we went from a one-way flow of electricity to homes that really have a bi-directional flow of energy.” Similarly, automakers, charging companies and utilities must work together to harness the batteries of electric vehicles sitting in garages.

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