How Grandma Can Love the Smart Grid

There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt – the FUD factor – around Smart Grid technologies and what’s in store in our energy future.  Everyone is concerned about rising electricity costs.  Everyone should recognize that global warming is a real threat to our national security.  The Smart Grid can address these concerns, but the FUD factor is slowing progress and limiting options. 

So let’s get creative in identifying and developing some of the benefits that a Smart Grid can bring to us into innovative programs.  For instance, the University of Delaware has been conducting a pilot in collaboration with PJM, the regional Independent System Operator (ISO); PEPCO Holdings, the local utility; and AC Propulsion, an electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer.  Their hypothesis was that EVs could help with load-frequency control, and thus encourage integration of intermittent renewables like wind and solar into the grid.  Increasing our use of renewables decreases dependence on foreign energy sources and dirty fossil fuels, and as an added bonus, builds local jobs.  The grid depends on a steady frequency of 60 KHz for grid stability, and intermittent renewables and today’s dearth of energy storage present challenges for grid operators.  When the wind dies down, for example, it can cause heartburn for grid operators if there are no alternative energy sources to take up the gap.   The team at Delaware experimented with EVs that remain plugged into the grid when not in use, responding to requests to discharge energy from the EV batteries back to the grid.  This is also known as Vehicle to Grid, or V2G, leveraging Smart Grid technologies to enable communications between utilities and EVs.  The pilot included incentives of $10/day/EV to provide frequency-load control services to the local utility.  That works out to $3650 each year to each EV owner. 

What’s an ideal demographic for this type of V2G program?  Senior citizens.  Think about your retired relatives and neighbors.  Living independently or in retirement communities, they often have cars that are infrequently used.  Why aren’t utilities, regulators, EV manufacturers, and the AARP putting together programs that, with financial assistance if necessary, encourage trade-ins of senior citizens’ gas-burning cars for EVs, with enrollment options to sell back EV battery power and earn money?  Many seniors have driving habits that fall well within the EV charge ranges, and they have perhaps more flexibility with their daily schedules than commuters and families with children, so they can be reliable frequency regulation sources.   When they need to use their cars, there’s no penalty for not being connected to the grid, just the loss of that incentive for the day.  Programs like these can make people understand one of the many benefits that the Smart Grid brings to consumers. 

The payoffs of an EV program targeted to seniors for grid frequency-load control extend beyond the participating consumers.  Utilities can add renewable energy sources with confidence and reduce reliance on dirty fossil fuels.  Regulators will see more stability in electric rates as utilities can avoid additional generation investments.  Air quality boards and health officials will like the reductions in car emissions.   All citizens benefit from these positive consequences of an enlightened V2G program.  Yes, Grandma would give up her Buick in a nanosecond if an EV actually earned money for her, and she’d love the Smart Grid for doing that.