Feature: How vehicle-to-grid technology could turn EVs into mobile power stations in the future

07 February 2018

Vehicle-to-grid technology could be the next big thing for plug-in commercial vehicles. The future concept involves selling surplus energy from batteries – i.e. any range that is left at the end of the working day – back to the grid.

Conceptually, this would be done at peak energy times, when costs are higher, and the vehicles are subsequently charged overnight, when energy fees are lower. As a result, the business makes a profit by selling energy back to the grid at a higher cost than the charges issued during off-peak hours. The vehicles are still ready to go, with fully charged batteries, by the morning, potentially revolutionising the way companies operate and fund electric commercial vehicles.

Alex Baker, CEO of Fleet Innovations, explains how it would work in practice: “Vehicle-to-grid means that you can, as well as put energy into a vehicle, take energy out. If you can take energy out of a vehicle, you’ve got a great big battery there, and that energy can be used by you, as an organisation, to power your own requirements, or it could also be used to sell back to the grid.

In the commercial vehicle world, organisations with back-to-base operations, particularly delivery companies such as Royal Mail or DHL, would be best placed to benefit from the model. Meanwhile, those such as UPS, which have already invested in plug-in delivery vehicles and upgraded their local infrastructure, are also in a good position to take advantage of vehicle-to-grid.

“Think of [a company] like Royal Mail,” said Baker, “they are predominantly doing most of their work during the morning into the early afternoon, so they’ve got the capability to park all their vehicles up at, say, four o’clock in the afternoon. They’ll be vehicles that come back with 50 or 60% of their charge left. The National Grid wants some energy; Royal Mail sells the [remaining] energy in its vehicles to the National Grid for two or three hours, and the grid takes [the range] down to five or 10%. Then, between, say, eight o’clock and four in the morning, you put energy back into those vehicles and away you go.”

In January 2018, Innovate UK – funded by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – awarded £9.8 million to a consortium of organisations for a vehicle-to-grid demonstrator project, known as e4Future. The initiative will comprise analyses of charging data and the technical characteristics of both the vehicles and the electricity network in action, with a view to establishing a commercial vehicle-to-grid offering for electric fleet operators running plug-in cars and vans. Nissan is at the helm of the operation, but the National Grid, UK Power Networks, Northern Powergrid, Newcastle University and Imperial College London are all involved.

Baker, whose firm specialises in determining whether or not fleets can feasibly operate plug-in vehicles, said vehicle-to-grid set-ups require modern, high-power charging points, a suitable local infrastructure and collaboration with energy suppliers.

“The technology that exists today is very new, so the charge points are quite a bit bigger and much more high powered. They tend to be fast chargers – 20 to 50kW instead of the normal 7kW you put on the side of your house – so there would need to be work done with a charge point manufacturer.” He stipulated that participants would be required to install a particular type of charging point in order to participate in his company’s model, but could not name the manufacturer due to commercial sensitivities.

“You’d need to check that your local infrastructure was capable of taking the capacity and there would need to be contracts set up to sell that energy back to the grid, but that’s not as difficult as it sounds,” he added.

The company is working with an energy firm and a charging point specialist to establish a formal vehicle-to-grid offering. It has yet to carry it out in practice but is appealing to suitable operators to partake in real-world analyses: “We’re looking for fleets between 100 and 300 [vehicles]; that’s our kind of sweet spot at the moment – organisations that are looking at electric vehicles and would be open to things like vehicle-to-grid,” said Baker, “we’ll go higher [than 300] but we won’t go lower.

“At the moment, this is a proof of concept for us. What we’re trying to do is prove first: do they [the fleet] need electric vehicles? And secondly: would vehicle-to-grid work? We’re not specifying that it needs to be a certain type of vehicle or anything.”

Although the fundamental components of the technology exist, Baker described the resultant service as work in progress but, if successful, it could be rolled out on a large scale. “A lot of this is actually trying to learn what is the absolute sweet spot? What makes up the ideal kind of customer? It’s trying to build up a process and a kind of criteria where we know this works. Once we’ve done that, we can learn from it and start to roll it out en masse within the UK and with other countries.

“The National Grid runs at about 14% capacity during the night, and when it’s peak time, it’s around high 80s or higher, so there could be an entire business model for certain industries, certain organisations, where they are literally just trickling power [into the vehicles] all night, using them most of the day, then chucking power back into the grid at peak times and being able to turn their fleet into a power station. Think of DHL, for example. They might start at, say, eight in the morning and finish at six at night. You might find they change their working habits so those vehicles are available for that peak period – and they don’t see their vehicles as fleet any more, they see them as batteries. Get it right, and it’s potentially huge.”

Commercial vehicle operators interested in taking part in a vehicle-to-grid trial with Fleet Innovations should call 0845 600 6880 or email info@fleetinnovations.com.