GM’s pilot program with PG&E is using electric vehicles to power California’s grid

General Motors and Pacific Gas and Electric announced this week a joint pilot program to test ways GM electric vehicles can help the California utility company’s customers keep their lights on, by providing backup power to homes during power outages or providing supply energy back to the grid when demand is particularly high. It is an important step in enabling electric vehicles to become big battery on wheels.

The idea behind this pilot is simple: Electric vehicle owners plug their car charger into a home charger, and instead of electricity simply flowing into the car’s battery, electricity can flow as well. outside it’s to power buildings – a concept known as “grid vehicle”, which essentially makes the car an extension of the grid itself.

The most basic version of this idea is to temporarily disconnect a house from the grid during a power outage so that the car can provide backup power; At a more advanced level, a collection of EVs working together can act as a large backup battery for the general grid. In most of the country, the grid isn’t set up for something like this (simply put, cars and the grid don’t talk to each other). But with climate change hammering into the old US power gridThe PG&E pilot is a sign that utilities are starting to think creatively about potential solutions.

Home to a million (and continuing) EVs – most electric vehicles of any state in the country – California is particularly well-suited to testing the concept of using electric vehicles in this way. Climate change is also exacerbating California’s wildfire problemand PG&E Customer warning in 2019, they will face ten years of precautionary blackouts as the company tries to prevent fires starting with its transmissions. This is really a matter of life and death: PG&E is feel responsible for starting last year’s Dixie Fire, the second largest fire in state history, and charged with manslaughter after its equipment started burning in 2018 and 2020.

GM is by no means the only manufacturer thinking of grid-connected vehicle solutions, and in a way GM is playing catch-up. Two-way charging – energy flowing out of the car battery as well as into it – is already part of Ford marketing for the F-150 lightning since the truck was announced in May 2021 and PG&E before that have worked with BMW to test ways EVs can support the grid. But experts say GM’s size and electric vehicle ambitions mean that experimentation with PG&E has the potential to be a big deal and could be the first real test case of the grid-connected car concept.

“Large-scale bidirectional power has not really been done,” said Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It would be a good case study to raise any possible issues.”

It’s also a sign of how serious GM is, announced it will end production of diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, is about electric vehicles. Company lost money on every Chevrolet Bolt it sells, and projects like the PG&E pilot don’t come cheap.

“Seeing them put their time and resources into a project gives me hope,” said Samantha Houston, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She added that meshing media, as a concept, could be slightly faster.

“I definitely think utilities, given their size, could go further if they wanted to,” Houston told Recode. “I did find it a little cautious to approach these because the battery on the wheel is not something that gadgets have really worked on before.”

Part of the problem is that the grid may not be ready to let energy flow in the opposite direction than it normally would. That means utility companies will likely need to invest in replacing components, like transformers, so they can handle current flowing in both directions. However, powering a home is easier: The building would only need to be wired in a way that shuts it off from the larger grid when it gets power from the car, which is probably why GM pilots- PG&E is focusing on home backup power.

But this raises another problem: In order for your electric vehicle to be able to power your home during a power outage, you need to be able to plug it into your home – perhaps through a charger located in the gas station. out or garage. There’s no good way to send electricity from public charging points back to an apartment, and it’s hard to figure out how to transfer power from public chargers back to the general grid. That inherently limits benefits to those with enough income to not only buy an electric car but also live in a house with a garage.

“It’s still a program only accessible to many high earners,” explains Baker. “Being able to afford an electric car is one thing, being able to buy more equipment is another.”

The result of Climate change is unequal, and economically disadvantaged communities will bear the brunt of the pain. Baker and Houston say it’s important they don’t get left behind.

“I think maybe the next step is to ask the question ‘how do we make the transition to EVs fairer?’” Baker said. “We still don’t know how to do it.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one! GM’s pilot program with PG&E is using electric vehicles to power California’s grid

Fry Electronics Team

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