But utilities are likely to play the biggest role in ushering in a new era in power grids, says Max Baumhefner, a senior counsel with the Natural Resources Defense Council. A simple way to encourage EV drivers to support the grid is to offer “time-of-use” tariffs that make it cheaper for owners to charge at times when the grid is taxed less – for example, when most people sleep at night. After 10 years of success with these installment programs, Baumhefner has concluded that “if we give people a little nudge, they will respond.” This type of strategy can actually keep costs down for all grid users by helping utilities use the infrastructure they’ve already paid for more efficiently and avoid upgrades.
Standardization will be the trick, says Katie Sloan, vice president of customer programs and services at electric utility Southern California Edison. As more and more people send battery power back to the grid, it would help if the various electric vehicles and charging systems were technologically integrated. “It’s really analogous to what we’ve seen in the solar industry,” says Sloan. “That was the first time we went from having unidirectional power flow to homes that truly had bidirectional power flow.”
So how would that work for a customer? For example, an electric utility could ask electric vehicle owners to make their batteries available during extreme heat events. “The participating customer knows when their vehicle needs to be called to provide power,” said Samantha Houston, senior vehicles analyst for the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Giving the customer advance warning that it might happen, even if it’s just a day in advance, can be really helpful.”
This can be via email or app, or even via a notification displayed on the vehicle’s dashboard itself. The customer should be able to opt-out of a specific event if necessary, for example if they expect their electric vehicle to need to be fully charged to leave town. (Tesla has a similar opt-in program for its Powerwall home batteries, which provide power to the grid during peak demand.)
This month, during a record heatwave, California officials credited residents’ response to a daily text message alert warning them to stop using unnecessary energy — like unplugging their electric vehicles — to avoid taxi blackouts. But these EVs could also be used to power their owners’ homes, reducing overall demand on the grid. “We believe electric vehicles can help make power outages invisible to customers,” said Aaron August, vice president of business development and customer engagement at Pacific Gas and Electric, one of California’s largest electric utilities. That means if the power goes out, your home should be able to switch to battery power without you even noticing. “These are mobile power plants. And with the right configuration, you can survive an outage for hours.”