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Cheap Enough to Play With: Is EV Technology Paving the Way for a Grid Transition?

Aug. 29, 2019
EV racing represents reliability, range, and speed, while classic car EV conversions represent fun, acceptance, and cheap batteries.

I was going through my photo files last month searching for some graphics to add to the finished July "Charging Ahead" section, when I stumbled on some Formula E racing cars pictures. I had taken these at the 2018 IEEE PES T&D Expo. I went to see the latest and greatest smart grid techno-toys and found something totally unexpected: a Formula E racing car. I expected to see a line up of all-electric line-trucks, but not an all-electric Formula E car sitting there in the ABB exhibit. Those photos got me thinking about how far electric vehicles (EV) have come.

Formula E racing is a lot like Formula 1, only quieter, emissions-free and a wee bit slower, but it’s only in its fifth season. The important takeaway is EV technology getting to the point that high performance racing is possible and it draws crowds. With that in mind, it wasn’t long until I was surfing for information about the interactions between EVs and utilities. I had been talking with a lot of experts and reading all they sent me about how EVs were poised to take over the global highways and the impact that would have on the grid.

In the process, I stumbled onto a story published by Bloomberg about turning classic automobiles into hot-rodding EVs. I found that EV conversions were becoming widespread around the world. Several of my engineering buddies have turned older cars into EVs, but this has the potential of becoming a grassroots thing. The article went on to describe turning old roadsters into all-electric muscle cars using conversion kits with Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, Tesla drivetrains, and LG Chem motors. One of the kits converted a 73 VW Bug from a 40 hp wimp-mobile into a 400 hp high-performance hot-rod. There were quite a few other conversion car kits listed, but the VW caught my eye since I had owned one in college. It was dependable transportation, but it lacked in performance.

Li-ion DIY Project

A couple of things struck me about EV racing and conversions. They’re milestones! EV racing represents performance: reliability, range, and speed. Classic car EV conversions represent fun, acceptance, and cheap batteries. The article said that conversation kits were selling like hotcakes on the global do-it-yourself market. There were even professional garages dedicated to this conversion craze.

Turning VW Bugs into muscle cars led me to other somewhat related thoughts. First, EVs are getting popular enough that people are converting old gas-powered cars into EVs for the fun of it. The second brainwave stopped me dead — the price of Li-ion batteries has dropped to the point people can afford to play and experiment with them. My final revolution was that utilities and regulators had better take notice of what the customers are doing with EV technology.

EVs are becoming one of the most discussed and cussed topics in the power delivery industry right now. It seems we have a love-hate relationship with them with little middle-of-the-road feelings. Grid-wise EVs are being blamed for all kinds of potential problems like stressing distribution feeders and increasing peak demand problems. For the plus side, they are being lauded for several benefits like being a load shifter and distributed energy resource. EVs are a rolling energy storage resource. That’s right, suddenly EVs are a resource and in case you haven’t noticed, energy storage has begun to have support with legislation.

It’s a Service

Regulators are legislating real dollar payments for energy storage services and the revenue stream is growing. Dropping Li-ion battery costs mean more EVs and home energy storage systems. It’s not so farfetched as you might think. It’s called energy-storage-as-a-service or ESaaS for short. It’s the "behind the meter" battery approach to energy storage. With cheaper Li-ion battery prices, this scenario is becoming a reality and that noise you hear is opportunity knocking at the door.

If you think the cost of the storage puts this out of most customers’ grasp, think again. There are several companies (aggregators) offering sticker shock relief for our customers. There is even an electric utility offering a program where they can have a Tesla Powerwall installed for a small down payment and a $15 monthly fee or a one-time $1500 payment. That utility, Green Mountain Power (GMP), provides its customers with the equipment and in return has shared access to the stored power when needed, which has already led to a $500,000 savings for GMP in one week of July 2018.

How long do you think it is going to take other utilities to offer their customers similar types of service? Formula E racing and classic car conversions to all electric EVs are early warnings for yet another grid transition, and we better pay attention to the signs.

Farriers, buggy whip makers, and stable owners missed it when the combustion engine came on the scene.

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