Microgrids and Electric Vehicles: How One Will Drive the Other

Oct. 30, 2017
Will the transportation and power sectors eventually merge into one? Here’s a look at what Schneider Electric’s Kevin Self sees ahead for microgrids and electric vehicles.

Schneider Electric’s Kevin Self illustrates the future of electrification by describing what it might be like in a coffee shop. Just as consumers today assume they will get Wi-Fi with their latte, those tomorrow might also expect some watts for the car.

Kevin Self, Schneider Electric

“You won’t need gas stations except to buy lottery tickets or get milk or beer. The cars will be charging at your home, place of work, your coffee shop,” says Self, Schneider’s senior vice president for strategy, business development & government affairs.

Better yet, maybe your electric vehicle is already charged, and you’ve arrived during a hot afternoon when power demand is high. So as you drink your coffee and work on your laptop, your car makes you some money by discharging power back to the local microgrid.

“Then it gets into what is the appropriate time to be charging, what’s the price of this electricity,” he says. “It also gets back to what is the role of these smaller grids. Am I on the broader grid or smaller grid. Do these electric vehicles themselves become their own mobile grids?”

This future is emerging out of what Self calls the three D’s – decentralization, decarbonization and digitalization – trends integral to the rise of both microgrids and electric vehicles that force a rethinking of the electric and transportation sectors,

“Smaller and modular — a more adaptable way to deliver electricity,” microgrids meet three priorities that many of today’s customers want — and tomorrow’s customers may seek even more. These involve securing low cost energy, ensuring sustainability or capturing resiliency, according to Self.

Depending on their goals, customers may prioritize some of these attributes, but be indifferent to others. A manufacturer might want the microgrid designed to produce low-cost energy. A green leaning organization might sacrifice price for sustainability. A prison, hospital or police station might prioritize reliable power at the expense of both best price or clean energy.

Examining customer preference for these attributes offers a view of how “the evolution or revolution of microgrids will be pushed forward,” he says.

Microgrids and electric vehicles as one system

Projecting even further into the future, some envision a scenario where you won’t drive your car to the coffee shop, but hail an automated vehicle Uber-style from your cell. Your vehicle will be among those traveling from substation to substation, charging and discharging their batteries as needed by a grid of microgrids. In essence, cars become components of a decentralized electricity system — an on-demand, self-propelling power resource programmed to react based on price, sustainability and resiliency.

Of course, integrating the electric and transportation system would require vast and complex engineering, software algorithms, and a total revamping of economic models for both sectors. Are the challenges insurmountable? Some would say so. But Self points out that the same doubts pervaded during early discussions of the cell phone. The idea seemed absurd of embedding  space-mission level computing power into a hand-held mobile device affordable to the masses.

We have trouble envisioning the full potential of microgrids and electric vehicles because we become so beholden to one world view, we can’t see anything different, Self says. He tells a story of Kodak holding patents for digital photography but keeping them in the vault because they could not imagine the day when cell phones would snap photos for weddings and birthday parties.

Quoting Tesla’s Elon Musk, he says the problem arises because we tend to think in a linear fashion, expecting technological progress to occur in a step-by-step way, from 2 to 3 to 4. In fact,  industries tend to grow exponentially, he says.

Stakes high for utilities

These changes create particularly high stakes for the 3,000 utilities in the United States, given that they function under a business model that revolves around a centralized grid, conceived 100 years ago long before microgrids, electric vehicles or cell phones.

Change for utilities is inevitable, says Self, who sees their future as mixed. Some “have their heads in the sand.” Others like Duke Energy and PG&E are “on the leading edge — those are the ones we surround ourselves with.”

Meanwhile, microgrids and electric vehicles continue to grow in use, driving change and leaving utilities — and everyone else — wondering how fast and how far.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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