The Father of Vehicle-To-Grid Charges Toward Commercialization

An electric vehicle charging project led by one of the fathers of so-called vehicle-to-grid technology — the two-way flow of electrons between electric vehicle batteries and the power grid — could someday soon move from academia to the commercial world. Willett Kempton, professor and lead researcher of V2G research at the University of Delaware, told us this week that he’s in serious negotiations with two car companies, a national government and three electric utilities, for potential licensing and manufacturing deals of his team’s technology that can use groups of electric vehicles to help utilities regulate frequency of the grid in real-time.

The idea is that electric vehicles could safely and successfully respond to a utility’s digital order in real time to act as a frequency regulator. The power grid works by constantly balancing supply and demand (generation and load) and must be kept at a 60 Hz frequency. That’s a complex and difficult task given today’s grid has little energy storage capacity. So if the frequency goes too high or low the utility must respond by shifting generation and load. For example, PJM, a regional transmission organization serving a population of 51 million, commonly pings generators to control regulation as often as hundreds of times per day.

But electric vehicle batteries could act as the real-time, distributed intelligent frequency regulators, replacing generators. Vehicles are commonly used less than 20 percent of the time and the rest of the time sit parked at homes and offices. Kempton and his team calculate that in areas with deregulated electricity markets, that type of regulation service could have an average value of $30-$45 per MW per hour. Say, if the currently expensive electric vehicle could pay for itself through delivering these types of services, it could be sold for a lot cheaper, with the right business model (see: Finding a Niche in the Electric Vehicle Market on GigaOM Pro, sub. required).

However, the system has to be smart enough and that’s where Kempton, who has been working on V2G technology since 1997, and his team’s technology come in. The group has created smart algorithms that can manage the communication between the vehicle and the utility control center, and have developed prototype gear that can be installed in the car.

The university’s V2G project kicked off in earnest back in May of 2007, when the University of Delaware, Pepco Holdings, PJM, and electric car tech maker AC Propulsion created the Mid-Atlantic Grid Interactive Car Consortium (MAGICC) to prove the V2G concept and the universities’ previous research. MAGICC received funding of $200,000 from the Delaware Green Energy fund, $250,000 from Pepco, and $150,000 from

In October 2007 the team behind MAGICC successfully connected (see photo) AC Propulsion’s eBox — a converted Toyota ScionxB that uses a drivetrain that later became the core tech for the Tesla Roadster — to the PJM grid using a signal from the PJM control center to dispatch the vehicle as a regulation resource, like it would a traditional generator. Willard says the eBox’s 19 kW capacity makes it a better fit for V2G services compared to a lower capacity electric vehicle.

Since that 2007 demonstration Kempton and the researchers have boosted the number of pilot cars in the program to six. While that might still be small — to get a contract on its own with the utility it needs around 100 cars, says Kempton — the group is in the phase of moving beyond the research stage to exploring ways to actually commercialize the technology. Kempton says the team has a number of patents and is trying to figure out the best business model. “We’ve gone from ‘here’s how you do this’ to ‘here’s how you can license this,'” says Kempton.

The path to commercialization could potentially come from a spin-off company, depending on what kind of business model the researchers choose to take, Kempton tells us. While the group isn’t necessarily looking for funding, they will likely need some funding to move to the next stage and into commercialization — particularly if they decide to manufacture the hardware. In about nine months, Kempton predicts, the group will make a move toward creating an actual business out of the tech.

The plan isn’t without competition. Large auto makers, smart grid vendors, startups and IT firms are all eying the smart charging and V2G market, too. Conglomerate GE (s GE) recently linked up with auto maker Nissan and startup Juice Technologies. Ford has been demoing its V2G technology in recent months.

In addition, building the type of ecosystem that can support a pod of EVs that can act as frequency regulation will face numerous hurdles. Smart grid firm GridPoint backed away from the V2G concept, because, as GridPoint’s Seth Bridges explained to us last year major automakers “are not going to go down that path anytime soon.” Many automakers are wary of the impact that V2G will have on battery life and warranty costs. Ford doesn’t expect V2G to be deployed commercially until 2020 or later (GigaOM Pro, subscription required). Kempton said that of the two car companies his team has been talking to, neither are American, despite the researcher trying to negotiate with U.S. automakers.

For Kempton, who was talking about vehicle to grid tech before the LEAF was even a glimmer in Nissan’s eye, it’s an interesting time. While the world has been struck by EV-fever, and dozens of new electric vehicles could be on the market in the coming years, one of the academics that paved the way for the industry to take shape is now faced with figuring out how to sell it.

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