Distributech is the largest energy transmission and distribution conference in the US. Its massive conference floors showcase booths that can easily span 1.000 square feet. As I witnessed at this year's conference, things are changing fast in the power distribution arena.
Rapid innovations around hardware and communications are transforming the structure of the electricity system, now reflected in buzzwords such as #DER#gridedge#microgrid#disruption. You name it and it's on display at Distributech. But what exactly changed in the ways we distribute and consume energy?
It's no longer a one-way street from the power plant, via a transmission grid, to the distribution grid, into your home or workplace. Instead, it has become an integrated system, the likes of which we have never seen before. Consumers have become producers themselves, thanks to solar panels on their roofs that feed their surplus energy back into the grid. Wind power supplies clean energy, but wind is also difficult to predict and should be supplemented (often by other resources).
The consumption of energy has changed too. Increasing welfare has led to more air-conditioned buildings (New York City alone, already has 8 million A/Cs), which create congestion problems on the grid. Of course, there is our bread and butter - the electric vehicle, which can be both a strain and a relief to the grid. It is a strain on the grid (operator) when cars charge at peak moments, or a relief, when cars charge at night and/or using primarily solar power.
Industry giants like Siemens and GE, as well as newcomers like Smarter Grid Solutions, all want to optimally integrate distributed energy resources into the grid. There are hurdles, however, from a technical and customer's point of view.
In the past, utility companies never had to deal directly with their end-customers. Supplying electricity and sending the bill were basically as far as they went in terms of consumer engagement.
Today, by communicating (either with a nice nudge or a price signal) directly with the end-customer, utility and service providers are able to change the demand for electricity at set times. By doing this, these providers can now optimize supply and demand and avoid expensive upgrades to the electricity grid.
Californian EV charging programs include time-of-use* pricing
The Californian Public Utility Commission recently approved both South California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E)'s EV Charging pilot programs. SCE has approved the installation of 1.500 chargers, SDG&E is considering 4.000 chargers. In both programs, the EV charger needs to reduce its load at peak moments. EV-Box charging stations have utilized this technique for over three years, with the city of Rotterdam as one of the key practitioners.
Initially, this so-called Load Balancing service is designed to avoid overloading the local circuit board, as well as to avoid expensive building upgrades and overcapacity fees. Interestingly, the same control system can be used to respond to price signals. These price signals can be used to motivate EV drivers to charge their cars during the moments of the day when there are no (or fewer) grid constraints.
Why is time-of-use pricing so important to Californian utilities? Well, California is a leader in solar panel adoption. Yet combining this with high temperatures, this leads to frequent A/C usage, which creates an electricity load curve - dubbed the duck curve:
With an increase in the amount of solar panels, energy consumption from the grid during the day decreases, until 6 PM when the sun is setting. However, temperatures are still very high around that time, so air conditioning usage causes a peak in demand for electricity.
This is why many utility companies now have shifted their focus towards customer engagement. If they make sure that people change their consumption behaviors, they avoid having to upgrade the grid - a significant investment, especially considering that the grid is only utilized 3% of the time.
With time-of-use rates, utility companies hope to motivate EV drivers to charge at times that are beneficial to the grid. Beneficial times are, for instance, the moments when there is an abundance of sun, or when fewer people are using electric appliances.
Our years of experience within Europe, and our flexible collaborations with various service providers to accommodate specific business and EV charging needs, make EV-Box an ideal partner in EV Charging programs for Californian utility companies… and beyond.
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