Time is not on their side: Utilities ill-prepared for EV demand, SEPA finds

Most utilities remain in the very early stages of preparing for a significant jump in demand, according to the Smart Electric Power Alliance

t's always dangerous to make technology predictions, but right now this feels like a sure thing: Electric vehicles are going to become popular, mainstream, common. One day, even, the standard.

How and when these zero-emission vehicles are charged will be critical.

With the rise in EVs, your local electric utility could replace your local gas station. And some companies, like PG&E, are pursuing initial efforts to encourage charging when renewable energy generation is highest.

But new research shows utilities are generally ill-prepared for the influx of demand.

Charging infrastructure is growing, and utilities and state regulators have stepped up to spur its development. According to one EV charging company, Volta Charging, more than 80% of people live within five miles of an EV charging station, and more than half are within two miles. But with EV adoption in the nascent stages, demand impacts have been minimal.

Peak demand risks

Broadly speaking, utilities are embracing the change. They want new customers, new infrastructure, new demand. But according to a new report from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), many utilities risk being overrun by new peak demand unless they move quickly to adjust their system, rates and demand management programs.

"Based on numerous and continuously revised EV forecasts, time is not on the utilities’ side," SEPA concluded in its report, Utilities and Electric Vehicles–Evolving to Unlock Grid Value. "Forecasts increasingly predict exponential growth over a fairly narrow span of time," the report finds.

According to SEPA, annual energy consumption from electric vehicles in the United States will rise from "a few terawatt-hours"  in 2017, to at least 118 TWh — and potentially as high as 733 TWh — by 2030.

"Many utilities may be caught unprepared," the report concludes. "While many utilities across the country have expressed an interest in growing load, they are also uncertain about the most effective approaches to ensure benefits for consumers and address concerns of regulators and other governance boards."

The key issue is peak load. Utilities want new demand, but given their druthers, they'd prefer it not on the system at times when load is already high and energy is expensive. That would lead to higher costs and possibly the need for expensive equipment upgrades. As the new demand shows up, SEPA says utilities must be able to manage it. Ideally, charging would be paired with times of renewable over-production.

"It's really more of trying to ensure they don't exacerbate their peak load," SEPA Research Director Erika Myers told Utility Dive. "There is enough capacity to absorb the electricity demand from the new load, but the more critical piece is when they will charge."

Myers, who authored the SEPA EV study on utility preparedness, said the research shows a strong need for utilities to start more active engagement with their consumers. "The challenge for utilities will be to adjust to this new load curve," she said. "Without any new management or rates, the issue might be it will exacerbate peak load."

There are two areas utilities must explore to ultimately allow electric vehicles to be used as grid resources, she said.

"Managed charging essentially is helping to redirect consumer charging," Myers said. It creates "opportunities to soak up additional solar and wind, and an opportunity to either directly control or influence charging time."

"The second opportunity is Vehicle to Grid. But there is still a lot of work to be done on the technology side," she said.

"Managed charging" has become the industry buzzword, and something of a holy grail. Along with Vehicle to Grid services (V2G), where electric vehicles go beyond demand response and at times feed power back into the grid, these two concepts represent the long-term vision for how utilities can not just deliver energy for EV charging, but utilize it as a grid resource.

But in between most utilities and that high-tech concept stands a lot of work, Myers said.

The adoption curve

Just as there is a consumer adoption curve for EV drivers, utilities also fall somewhere along a scale of preparedness to deal with the anticipated load.

SEPA surveyed 486 utilities, representing about 70% of U.S. customer accounts, and roughly broke them into three groups: Early, Intermediate, and Late stages of preparedness. The overwhelming majority of utilities, about 75%, are in the early stages of preparing for rapid EV adoption. And most of those in the latter stages are investor-owned utilities.

"The need here is for a massive ramp-up with Intermediate and Late Stage utilities transferring expertise to the Early Stage organizations," the report finds.

"There are a lot of learnings utilities have been able to collect, and we as an industry should be better at sharing," Myers said. "We have all got to work on this together in order to be successful." After all, she said, utilities do not compete with each other and so sharing knowledge would be mutually beneficial.

"There are no major barriers, other than making it a priority," Myers said.

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The Maryland experiment

Maryland is experimenting with one model that can help make information sharing and planning a priority. The state wants to get almost 300,000 more electric vehicles on its roads by 2025, but has a long way to go. To address the gap, last year the state's utilities, environmental groups and EV industry reps, came together in a working group to tackle the problem. The outcome was a 150-page "Proposal to Implement a Statewide Electric Vehicle Portfolio" that had 14 signatories.

"This isn't about taking over a marketplace, but key parties working together as a catalyst to further drive adoption," John Murach, Baltimore Gas & Electric's manager of energy programs and services, told Utility Dive.

Exelon utilities BGE, Delmarva Power & Light and Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) joined with First Energy's Potomac Edison Co., ChargePoint, Greenlots, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and several other parties on the proposal

With more new EVs hitting the market, the question becomes, "how can we move this forward collectively?" Murach said.

Noah Garcia, a transportation analyst for NRDC, said the final Maryland proposal was "by no means perfect from everyone's perspective, but certainly stronger" for using such a collaborative approach.

Early utility EV programs may aim inward

Utilities first beginning to tackle EV issues might develop an internal fleet of electric vehicles, roll out workplace charging for employees, and put up a website offering customers information about vehicles, charging and rates.

"One of the best [returns on investment] is putting information on a website and helping as a trusted advisor, as many utilities are on all things related to electricity," Myers said.

A website might have the highest ROI and be relatively simple to put together, but that doesn't mean utilities are doing it. Myers' research shows only about 25% of utilities have a website devoted to EV matters.

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Later stage actions

As utilities move beyond early stage actions, as their programs get more sophisticated and customer-facing, the slate becomes more ambitious.

"A lot of the intermediate stage [actions] are meant to influence certain behaviors, and are less about controlling load," Myers said. "The hallmark of utilities in the intermediate stage ... is really the ability to experiment, and see what customers in their territory are interested in, what they respond to."

Intermediate actions might include customer incentives for EV adoption and charging equipment, workplace charging at partner locations, and the development of special EV-focused rates.

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Myers noted a Minnesota pilot, proposed last year, that would attempt to use a single meter capable of disaggregating the charging load. The cost of a second meter for charging can be prohibitive and utilities are experimenting with how to get revenue-grade data without excessive costs.

The two year pilot, proposed by Xcel Energy, would include up to 100 customers.

 "It will be interesting to see what changes come out as a result of advances in AMI," Myers said. "Utilities are working to understand what is most cost effective."

And as utilities move towards controlling large groups of vehicle loads, more utility programs will depend on charging stations using standards that can communicate with aggregators. "Utilities should be talking standards and interoperability," Myers said.

Advanced utility programs

The most advanced utility programs will tackle V2G issues and attempt to turn EVs into a flexible resource. There are a few utilities that have made significant advances. 

Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric and BMW completed an 18-month demand response pilot that included 100 owners of the BMW i3 in the California Bay Area. The companies concluded that the aggregated electric vehicles could function as a flexible grid resource.

During the program, PG&E said it dispatched 209 demand response events totaling 19,500 kilowatt-hours. And David Almeida, manager of clean energy programs for PG&E, said the utility is continuing to build on that effort. 

BMW is leading a second phase to explore optimizing charging events "wherever the vehicle is charging," Almeda told Utility Dive. The automaker expanded the number of customers participating and partnering with PG&E to test new smart charging functionality.

"Through smart and managed charging, we are working to support renewable energy generation by charging vehicles when solar generation is highest," Almeida said. "Various factors are involved when it comes to supporting the grid, which will need to be clearly defined in future years before vehicle to grid applications become a mainstream."