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At a crossroads: The connected future of EVs, solar, energy storage and software

By Wes Doane, Intersolar North America Event Director and Lior Handelsman, VP Marketing & Product Strategy, Founder, SolarEdge

This article was originally published on Utility Dive | 01/31/2020

As a new decade dawns, there’s cause for optimism that the 2020s will see the transition to clean energy accelerate. Prices of renewable energy and battery technologies are at an all-time low, and the number of electric vehicle (EV) sales are on the rise.

Analysts predict that by 2040, more than half of all vehicles on the road will be electric. With transportation contributing to nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, electrifying how people get from point A to point B is a critical step in reducing our global carbon footprint.

But increased electric demand from the expansion of EVs poses challenges to an already strained electric grid. Experts are calling on solar energy, storage solutions and software to play critical roles in supporting this surge to the grid.

Fortunately, some companies are already thinking creatively about these challenges and developing solutions that make the interplay between these technologies easier.

Grueling grid challenges

Over the past few years, the e-mobility industry has identified certain patterns in the grid’s capacity. Researchers warn against the “dragon curve” (Figure 1), a name for spikes in energy demand that occur during weekday mornings when drivers charge their vehicles at work and in the evenings when drivers charge at home.

This will likely worsen as ultra-fast charging comes into play and faster charging times increase energy demand.

Figure 1: “The Dragon Curve” | Credit: The Governor’s Wind Energy Coalition

This is similar to the solar industry’s “duck curve” (Figure 2), which describes the energy imbalance of solar generation during the day and peak energy usage in the evening. The key takeaway is that existing grid infrastructure is not prepared to support the electric mobility boom.

This challenge, however, opens the door to new business opportunities.

Figure 2: The “duck curve” | Credit: The Department of Energy

Synergistic solutions

Already, companies are introducing synergistic solutions to address this challenge, such as combining solar inverters with EV charging technology to allow homeowners to charge their vehicles with their self-generated solar energy.

The next step is an inverter that manages PV, battery storage and EV charging to provide power during peak hours — independent from the grid. These solutions provide alternatives to grid-connected devices and help curb spikes in electric demand to the grid.

Less obvious is the opportunity that exists for vehicles to add flexibility to the grid.

With vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, EVs can be used as storage units — charged at night when demand is low and using electricity dispatched during the day to help shave peaks in demand. By capitalizing on the electricity the vehicles carry, property owners can cut costs by supplementing grid power during hours of high demand, thus avoiding time-of-use rates.

Utilities increasingly see the potential value of V2G solutions as well. Dominion Energy recently announced an initiative to deploy electric school buses in one of the very first commercial V2G initiatives. The program would help to stabilize the grid and offer backup power during blackouts.

There’s no question battery technology is at the core of many of these solutions. But in order to effectively track and optimize energy use, the battery and each of these various technologies will need to be able to work in synchrony — both at the local and grid level.

Software is playing a vital role in shaping the future of virtual power plants, aggregating and coordinating distributed energy resources to meet energy consumers’ needs, without the grid stress and vulnerability caused by centralized power stations. The industry can expect to see this trend continue as providers look to software to monitor fluctuations in energy demand, manage generation from distributed sources, and signal opportunities for users to dispatch power from charged vehicles.

Our connected future

A hypothetical parking lot has plenty to teach us about the future of the electric grid. Let’s say the parking lot has access to 100 kilowatts (KW) from the grid. As EVs arrive at the lot and plug into chargers, the power will be distributed across the vehicles.

With only 100 KW from the grid, the vehicles will experience delays in charge times as more EVs fill the lot. Without solar and storage, drivers could experience more “grid jams” than traffic jams as they wait for cars to be charged.

Fortunately, the solution is clear. Integrating solar and storage allows the parking lot to more than double the amount of energy available, without demanding more from the grid — increasing energy bandwidth and speeding up charge times. With an energy storage unit, the parking lot enables drivers to access power any time of day.

One step further is the opportunity for users to deploy the energy stored in their charged vehicles back to the grid. This opens the door to new possibilities for software to support purchasing and trading energy.

The industry at a crossroads

The industry could benefit from conferences that support the evolution and convergence of e-mobility, solar, energy storage and software solutions, with programming that highlights pioneering innovations at the intersection of these sectors. This can foster cross-sector conversations that tackle the biggest challenges facing each market.

The need for partnership across industries is increasing as the EV market continues to expand and challenge a static electric grid, and — ultimately — drive the industry forward to a clean, connected future.

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