Electric Vehicles as Energy Storage πŸš˜πŸ”ŒπŸ”‹

The Good, The Bad, The Nuanced Behind Building Energy Resilience

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This case study explores electric vehicles as energy storage; for more context on energy storage, check out this post here.

Imagine this: your power has just shut off in the middle of a winter storm. Not only are the lights out, but the ambient heat from your heater is wearing off, and you're starting to feel cold. You remember the news stating that outages could last days, and you are worried, especially for your grandfather, who can’t go too long without his oxygen machine. Then you remember that your electric Ford F150 Lightning has an β€œintelligent backup power” feature, meaning it can act as a power source. So you grab an extension cord, plug in your electric space heater for warmth, lamps for lights, your grandpa’s electric machine, and your TV to watch more Bob's Burgers! We call this ability to withstand disruptive incidents resilience, specifically energy resilience.

Energy resilience is commonly defined as avoiding, preparing for, adapting to, and rapidly recovering from disruptive incidents. This means that in times of external disruptions like a winter storm, we are able to keep functioning without harm (or as little harm as feasibly possible). By storing energy in EV batteries, we can provide additional capacity (resilience) during times of high electricity demand or during external disruptions like a winter storm. Such resilience can play a crucial role in keeping people safe during emergencies.

How Does It Work? πŸ€”

So, electric vehicles are batteries on wheels; how exactly can we use them to power our homes, and what else can we do?

The key idea here is that EVs need to be capable of bidirectional charging, meaning they can both charge and discharge their batteries. This enables vehicle-to-everything technology, such as vehicle-to-grid (V2G), vehicle-to-building (V2B), and vehicle-to-load (V2L). Such technology means that EVs can not only charge from the grid, but also feed energy back into the grid, buildings, or loads (appliances) when necessary. Such technology can provide additional resilience to communities by providing immediate, on-site energy storage solutions. It can also provide resilience to utility companies by increasing energy capacity via decentralized energy storage sources. While bidirectional charging tech is still developing, vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Ford F-150 Lightning can show us one future of energy resilience. Integrating bidirectional EVs into grid services can also save money, similar to how homeowners can save money with solar panels by taking advantage of net metering practices to sell excess energy back to the gridβ€”check out the graphic below from energy.gov explaining this process:

EVs and grid services from US Department of Energy

Most EVs today are not capable of supplying energy back to the grid. However, they can still be used in grid storage. For example, a plant in Elvelingsen, Germany, uses nearly 2000 batteries from retired Mercedes Benz EVs as a β€œreplacement parts store” to create a stationary grid-sized battery that can hold almost 9 MW of power.

The Nuance: EVs and Mobility Issues πŸ’‘

Electric vehicles, like Ford's F150 Lightning, are quickly becoming a more popular solution for reducing emissions and transitioning to a more sustainable mobility system. However, they are not the only answer to transportation emissions issues. The primary reason for this is because EVs are still cars; cars that cause congestion; cars that lead to road traffic crashes; cars that enable urban sprawl and prevent truly accessible cities. Instead, EVs should be considered as a component of a holistic approach to revamp our mobility options. This approach should focus on carbon-free transportation options (walking and biking) and electrifing transit, not on expanding highways for electric vehicles; such moves detract from investing in public transit options. One potential solution could be investing in electric utility vehicles, like school buses or trucks, which could then be deployed to communities that need additional resilience. Additionally, city governments could purchase electric vehicles to use both for regular city operations and as additional energy storage.

On top of this, EVs are expensive. The average EV today costs over $66,000. While that is likely to decrease in the coming years, cost barriers and vehicle ownership disparities will mean that low-income households and marginalized populations might not be able to take full advantage of the advancements described. Resilience planning needs to consider all members of society through policy and design or risk further exaggerating marginalization.

Conclusion πŸ’­

So what do we do? Are EVs cool or not? The critical thing to remember here isn't if we should be for or against EVs but rather understanding that our sustainable future will be a piecemeal mix of solutions. EVs absolutely have the potential to support energy resilience since they are viable battery sources during power outages. However, it is essential to acknowledge that while EVs are a step towards a sustainable future, they are still cars that contribute to congestion. Therefore, it is crucial that as we work towards greater energy resilience, we also decrease our dependence on vehicles in favor of truly accessible and sustainable mobility.

We'll cover more on mobility in the coming months, so stay tuned!

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