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The widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) will lead to greater consumption of electricity. As a result, existing electricity systems will have to be reconfigured to meet these needs, and this is where the smart grid can play an important role, according to a report released by the International Transport Forum.

Smart grid technology can make it possible for EVs to proliferate without overloading the electric supply industry. At the same time, these vehicles may be useful for matching intermittent solar and wind power supplies to demand, soaking up excess off-peak power supply and feeding power back into the grid when needed. In addition, EVs may be able to produce a backup supply of power in case of power cuts, according to the report.

As the use of EVs grows, demand on electricity load will need to be carefully managed in order to avoid problems in peak load periods - for example, when motorists plug in their cars to recharge at the end of the workday. Smart grid technologies enable charging load to be shifted automatically to off-peak periods regardless of when the EV owner plugs in the vehicle.

This applies to private vehicles charged at home and to fleet vehicles in commercial operation. Both can benefit from low off-peak electricity charges through smart-meter-enabled charging. Managing demand in this way can significantly reduce generation and network investment needs, as well as minimize carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, according to the report.

In the longer term, there may be some potential for the smart grid to enable EVs to be used as distributed storage devices by feeding the electricity stored in their batteries back into the system or directly into the home or office.

Vehicles are parked an average of 95% of the time, providing ample opportunity for their batteries to be used for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) supply, according to the report. An EV owner with no immediate need for the vehicle may be willing to feed power into the grid, if the price the grid company pays for the power is high enough.  

Potential barriers

V2G electricity supply is technically possible, yet it remains uncertain whether it will prove to be economically viable on a large scale. Some potential barriers include the following:

- The availability of V2G capacity during peak demand periods is uncertain.

- Technology is not yet available to design batteries efficient enough to be commercially viable under the frequent charge/discharge regime required for intensive V2G use.

- While smart grid technology currently exists to manage V2G supply, it has not yet been demonstrated on a large scale. The sheer number of EV connection points that would need to be managed makes it prohibitively expensive at present.

In light of these factors, the potential for V2G in practice is likely to prove to be small relative to grid-to-vehicle (G2V) unless charging times can be reduced significantly and battery storage capacity increased markedly.

Smart grids and renewable energy

The share of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, is growing in response to the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

However, the intermittence of wind and solar can become problematic as the use of these energy sources increases because of the growing difficulty in ensuring reliable and stable management of the electricity system. The demand-management and load-following potential of smart grids can be exploited to compensate for this variability in electricity supply, the report explains.

Smart grids also permit the storage potential of EV batteries to be used to smooth variable renewable electricity output. Batteries can store wind power output at night, when demand is at its lowest. They can store solar output in the middle of the day, when it is surplus to requirements in cooler climates.

Pilot projects

Much of the technology needed to integrate EVs into a smart grid is still under development and needs to be demonstrated on a large-scale basis for testing in real-world operating conditions.

Collaboration between electric utilities, car companies, power control system manufacturers and research institutions can help to speed up the deployment of smart grid technologies and minimize costs.

A large number of organizations around the world are conducting smart grid research. Most industrialized countries either have national development programs or actively support private research efforts.

Key pilot projects include SAVE in France, the e-Mobility Showcase in Germany, E-mobility in Italy, Mobile Smart Grid in the Netherlands, Movele in Spain, Smart City San Diego in the U.S. and Toronto Hydro's Smart Experience in Canada.

The most advanced pilot is under construction in Israel by Better Place, a venture-capital-backed company based in Paolo Alto, Calif. The company has plans for similar public charging networks in Denmark and Hawaii.

Adaptation of the regulatory framework for electricity supply is key to making G2V and V2G technically and commercially viable. Tariff structures need to provide incentives for electricity companies to invest in smart grid technologies, according to the report.

Dynamic pricing should be made available to individual consumers as well as to industry, with prices varying in real time. Governments will also have to change the regulation of electricity tariffs to permit and encourage necessary innovation in pricing.

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