Postcard from the Future: Latest on How States are Preparing the Grid for Electric Vehicles

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A number of states are embracing the electric vehicle revolution, enacting programs intended to boost EV use on our nation’s roads. Most recently, New Jersey, New York and California announced plans to invest in EV infrastructure.

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As EV-friendly measures continue to be enacted, innovative rate structures and smart charging can cushion the grid from problems, said Noah Garcia, transportation policy analyst, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

What’s more, programs that provide for EV interaction with the grid (or microgrid) are being tested, and may be implemented more often in the future, said Garcia.

For example, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is working on the Open-Vehicle Grid Integration Platform, which would allow EVs to interact with the grid to provide grid system benefits, he said.

The program pursues PEV [plug-in electric vehicles] and charging infrastructure management in a  “grid-friendly manner.” The idea is to provide benefits to PEV owners by allowing them to take advantage of utility incentives and to ratepayers through improved use of grid capacity, according to EPRI.

Despite progress on EV instructure development,  several states aren’t moving fast enough to achieve their zero-emission goals, according to NRDC. The states have signed onto California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program, a promise to sell an increasing number of EVs by 2025. The states whose infrastructure lags behind their goals include Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, said Garcia.

How to cushion the grid

The worry about boosting EV charging is that it will require grid upgrades and also hurt reliability, Garcia noted. However, California, home to the majority of EVs in the US, is using innovative pricing and smart charging to prevent such problems and cushion the grid.

“We can rely on California to get a postcard from the future,” he said. Utilities in the state spend about $5 billion annually to maintain their systems, and upgrades due to EVs have cost about $600,000, “a drop in the bucket,” he said.

“We can rely on California to get a postcard from the future.” — NRDC’s Garcia

In California, utilities offer time-of-use rates to encourage off-peak charging, which have been effective, Garcia said.

“We hope other states can take these lessons and apply them in order to avoid or defer system upgrades and encourage off-peak charging,” he said.

Under time-of-use rates, the cost of using electricity is higher during on-peak periods. For example, in Oregon, in Portland General Electric’s (PGE) territory, on-peak is 19.9 cents/kWh, mid-peak is 14.5 cents/kWh and off-peak — generally 10 pm to 6 am—is 4.2 cents/kWh.

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In a pilot program, PGE also offers some customers a ‘flex’ rate, under which it pays certain customers to reduce energy usage during high peak periods a few times per season. At this time, it’s unusual for utilities to pay residential customers to reduce demand, Garcia noted.

In addition to time-of-use rates, smart charging programs help soften the effect of EV charging on the grid, Garcia noted.

Consolidated Edison, for example, has implemented Smart Charge New York, which isn’t a formal rate, but instead, a program that provides incentives for EV owners to charge during off-peak hours. Using software, the program measures when EV owners are charging, and if they charge during off-peak hours, they get a gift card or other perk, he said.

To boost the use of EVs, NRDC sees the need for utilities and public utility commissions to get more involved. In NRDC’s view, utilities should pay for infrastructure and then pass on the costs to ratepayers, in recognition of the fact that all ratepayers benefit from greater use of EVs.

“We are looking for more coordination among utilities and EV charging companies to deliver the widespread adoption we need,” Garcia said.  “Transportation infrastructure provides benefits to everyone in the form of reduced greenhouse gases, lower emissions and it boosts the utilization of fixed assets.”

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State models for EV infrastructure

The New York Power Authority, which has a goal of 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, has begun a $250 million program that provides for an initial $40 million investment in three key areas by the end of 2019: 200 Direct Current Fast Charging (DCFC) stations located across the state, new charging hubs at JFK and LaGuardia airports, and EV-friendly “model communities.” In these communities, utilities manage the charging infrastructure to ensure the electricity is affordable and reliable, and the power grid is more efficient, according to NRDC.

In New Jersey, PSE&G plans to invest $300 million in smart EV infrastructure, along with energy efficiency and energy storage projects. Its proposal, which it says will be filed with the Board of Public Utilities later in the year, is the largest transportation electrification program outside of California’s, said Garcia.

And in late May, the California Public Utilities Commission approved four utility programs totalling $738 million that aim to speed transportation electrification. The moves are mandated by a 2015 clean energy law, says NRDC. They include 15 pilot programs that will electrify transit buses, school buses and other vehicles. Each utility agreed to different provisions, with Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, providing infrastructure to support 300 DC fast-charging stations and infrastructure for heavy-duty EVs.

The California commission approved these investments, saying they are in the interest of utility customers, said NRDC.

“Utilities as stewards of the grid are finding opportunities to support the deployment of EVs and are playing roles in educating and providing more outreach to their customers to go electric,” said Garcia. Along with that activity, there are many opportunities for ensuring the grid won’t get overloaded by EV charging, he said. Utilities can look to California for role models — for their postcard from the future.

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