Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G): Fantasy or Future?

Phil Carson | Jun 15, 2010


To finish our series on reader engagement with the topic of electric vehicles, I'll open with a notion advanced by Wayne Longcore, director of enterprise architecture and standards at Consumers Energy, which provides electric service to more than 1.8 million customers in 275 cities in Michigan.

This gentleman has street cred; see my previous column on his outlook.

One of Longcore's favorite theses is the need to build "agility" into "transformational architecture" for the smart grid. He has suggested that in the future, the "grid" will refer to the sum of all devices connected to electron paths - a multi-directional, cohesive "Internet of things."

Hold that thought as we offer an edited forum from readers reacting to my columns on smart charging, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and the "whole package."

"Mostly fantasy is how I would characterize the hype about smart grid in general and electric vehicles in particular," one correspondent wrote. "The path to adoption of both will be much longer and more difficult than most proponents realize. Students of technology diffusion history understand that the path is always more convoluted than anticipated.

"The human element is under-appreciated," this writer continued. "Aside from a handful of aficionados, how many people really want to micromanage their electricity consumption? The notion that I would purchase an electric car and allow it to be used as backup capacity to a utility, regardless of compensation, is pure fantasy." 

The next contributor wrote that he was glad we addressed the smart charger for EVs developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"They're on the right track," this writer added. "[The previous writer] makes one excellent point, which is the human factor. The V2G concept that envisions using EV storage for grid balancing is unlikely to come to fruition because customers will [want] a fully charged vehicle without worrying about how much storage capacity their utility is using. If utilities insist on V2G, electric vehicles are unlikely to catch on."

Just a minute there, another correspondent said.

"The comments about the human factor making V2G a fantasy is like saying new cars are unsuitable for the road because they have square wheels," an EV defender wrote. "Build them with round wheels and they'll do the job. Swappable battery packs are not just a technical detail, it's the round wheel. See Project Better Place.

"Picture fuel stations with thousands of battery packs stored underground waiting for their turn to be loaded into a car by a robotic arm. Can you now see the potential for boosting the grid at critical peak times and charging at off peak?

"Hurdles and obstacles to difficult problems require innovative solutions, not dismissive labeling such as 'fantasy' and 'hype.'"

Another EV defender picked up the thread.

"The 'nay-sayers' were discouraging from the start. Today, V2G is on the verge of shaking up the electric and automotive industries like a tsunami. Already some island states and countries are putting V2G plans in place to incorporate wind and other renewable generation with the battery storage available in electric vehicles.

"When the electric utilities realize that needed grid storage can be provided by the utility at great cost or motivate their customers to buy and use V2G cars, the decision will be simple."

Hold on, pardner, another correspondent wrote.

"When considering the energy portion of the equation, what is meaningful are the kilowatt hours added and extracted from the batteries, the cost differential between charging at off-peak and discharging back to the grid at or near peak and the inherent losses associated with the conversion and storage," this writer said.

"Unless you are able to receive orders of magnitude more for the energy the system provides then your cost to charge it there is no way V2G can be viable.

"Ultimately, the only electrical storage system that holds any economic viability remains pumped storage, in my opinion."

The discussion continued, but you get the flavor here.

The dichotomous viewpoints here may reflect the "market," such as it is. For instance, in February we reported on a deal between the University of Delaware and PJM Interconnection for V2G arrangements in which "real money is changing hands."

On the other hand, last week, an Electric Drive Transportation Association webcast featured representatives from Southern California Edison, Duke Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute. They appeared to agree that utilities have their hands full figuring out how to accommodate EVs. For V2G, for now, they have "no hard plans."

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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I'm a bit less psssimistic than Mr. Mignogna about the rate of adoption.  I agree completely on the V2G idea.  Some numbers illustrate the economic challenge.

Take a PHEV for which gasoline costs 10 cents per mile ($3.20 per gallon, 32 PMG).  If the same vehicle requires 400 watts per mile running on electricity, then a consumer would have to receive 25 cents per kWh to break even on the gasoline it uses in place of stored electricity that's used instead by a local utility.  That's without counting losses, or amortization of the battery cost based on cycles, which will amount to a dollar or two per cycle over the life of the battery pack.  

I've also seen the arguments that consumers might be able to recoup the cost of the battery if it could be used to provide ancillary services.  That's true for only a limited number of vehicles.  Early research on this idea assumed ancillary services prices that were substantially higher than they are today, and I believe the authors assumed that prices would be unaffected by EV penetration rates, when in fact large-scale use of electric vehicle batteries to provide ancillary services would drive the prices to zero. 

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

More on V2G


So, when reading this column, my first thought was "Gee, the first writer he is quoting see this just as I do."  Then upon reading a bit further, I realized that those were my comments!  The point being I'm not that shy and have no problem with them being attributed to me. And, upon further reflection and more research since then, I believe they are still accurate.  Going a bit further, however, it may be useful to separate the issue of EV adoption from V2G.  EVs have more than enough impediments to their adoption without piling on the V2G albatross on top of them.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of electric vehicle technology and, if I could afford it, would love to have one... as a 2nd or perhaps a 3rd vehicle.  A toy, in other words, mostly suitable for hobbyists or aficionados who can afford the luxury.  But, as a long-time student of technological adoption processes, my concerns about mass market penetration still stand.  Primarily, you can categorize EV's current deficiencies into range, energy density, infrastructure, cost (as reflected in the first three), and human factors (these are not all unrelated).  Let's come back to that issue of whether I am willing to invest in capacity to provide storage for a utility.  That one is a no-hoper!  Frankly, neither smart grid nor V2G are sufficient to rescue EVs from becoming more than a small niche even out to 2050.  Nor are EVs the killer app that will propel the smart grid.  In the long term (say 50 years), if electric transportation penetrates our urban areas, it is likely to be more a function of increasing congestion and mass transit or routed personalized transit than the widespread adoption of EVs and V2G.

Will there be incremental advances as a result of advanced metering infrastructure that will create operational efficiencies for utilities and some new consumer services and benefits?  Of course there will.  Are we at the beginning of a period of revolutionary, radical innovation?  No.  Evolutionary, incremental innovation is what we will see, and there will be a variety of other, presently unforeseen, advances that direct its path.

Richard Mignogna

Professional Engineer

Colorado Public Utilities Commission

Thanks Richard

Just to clarify for our readers, our site does not identify readers automatically, to encourage participation by folks concerned about keeping their opinions separate from their professional affiliations. But readers are always welcome, as Richard Mignogna did here, to identify themselves in the body of their comments.

Richard, I have many of the same concerns on a practical level about EVs. Cost is one. Range is another - I typically drive 500 miles into canyon backcountry in Utah, which is a big range into an area unlikely to see charging stations anytime soon. Also, I do not want to drive a vehicle that is vulnerable to the steel monsters currently on the road - you know the makes and models.

However, in the urban environment, I do foresee a mix of better public transportation - even here in Colorado! - and short-range EVs catching on.

Let's talk further, we're practically neighbors.

Regards, Phil Carson

Additional thoughts on V2G

Phil, this is an important topic. The comments you quote are pretty representative of the issues. I addressed these and other aspects of the issue in a recent blog posting: Niall McShane Arlington Heights IL