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As more and more vehicles start plugging into the electric grid, utilities will need to manage the plug-in connections, or risk overloading the system. Seeing an opportunity to address that basic challenge, last year smart grid company GridPoint acquired startup V2Green, which had developed smart charging software for electric vehicles. Now less than a year after that acquisition GridPoint is set to launch its most advanced tool yet for utilities looking to track and predict loads from plug-in vehicles. GridPoint’s customers won’t be able to get the upgrade until September 4, but we saw a preview of the software this afternoon at the Plug-In 2009 conference in Long Beach, Calif.
Called “Smart Charging 3.0,” the new software is coming out just in time for the charging infrastructure buildout from ECOtality subsidiary eTec and several strategic partners, which won $99.8 million in grants from the Department of Energy last week. According to a release from GridPoint this week, the company has been working with the Idaho National Lab and eTec for more than a year on “electric vehicle performance and fast-charge systems.”
The big change from earlier versions of the Smart Charge system, GridPoint’s Seth Bridges explained to us, is that utilities will now have visibility into plug-in vehicles’ charging needs, patterns and storage capacity over a wider window of time. In addition to being able to scroll back over the past hour, day week or month of data (previously, graphs displayed only the last minute), utilities will also be able to view a forecast based on past patterns — when wind power capacity can be expected to peak each day, for example, and how power demands from vehicles usually vary over a 24-hour period.
Utilities using GridPoint’s earlier versions over the last two years have been able to download and analyze historical data on their own, Bridges said, but it’s a complicated process. The new system adds that historical data and forecasting to the real-time display offered in previous versions, and also lets utilities view what would have happened without smart charge management. “Resources” (connected vehicles) can be sorted into different groups, such as Demand Response — a group of vehicles whose charging might be suspended once or twice a year — or Wind Following, a group that connects and disconnects based on the availability of wind power.
The other piece of this comes from a charge point maker like Coulomb Technologies (an ECOtality supplier), which today announced the completion of integration with GridPoint’s system. Tom Tormey, Vice President of Product Management for Coulomb explained the pairing to us this way: “GridPoint doesn’t know anything about charging stations.” Rather, GridPoint’s servers “know all about the grid,” and now that integration has been completed (about a three week process, Tormey said, although the plans were initially announced a year or so ago), Coulomb can tell those servers what vehicle resources are actually available at a given time, and facilitate communication with them.
Coulomb’s subscribers can get a lower rate if they agree to have their charging temporarily suspended by the utility when needed (“load shedding”). GridPoint connects the dots to let utilities automatically and dynamically shed portions of that load based on set parameters — a promise that charging will be completed within six hours, for example, or a setting to pump excess wind power into car batteries if it would otherwise be “dumped.”
Bridges said GridPoint’s system can support two-way flow of energy between vehicles and the grid (using vehicle batteries to help level loads and reduce the need for dirty backup power plants by feeding energy into the grid when demand peaks) but he didn’t include this type of vehicle-to-grid feature in today’s simulation because it’s a “sensitive issue” with automakers worried about the repercussions for battery life and warranties. Major automakers “are not going to go down that path anytime soon,” he said, and so GridPoint has “backed off heavily” from the two-way V2G concept.
In the meantime, a lot can be done with basic smart charge management. Using GridPoint’s system, Bridges said, that can happen without automakers having to worry about relationships with 3,000 utilities, or utilities having to deal with 17 different vendors like Coulomb. So Smart Charging 3.0 isn’t exactly the vision once painted by V2Green, but it’s a major step for bringing more intelligence to the integration of vehicles, renewable energy and the power grid.