Electric cars suck a lot of power from the grid: A single car charging at a high speed can temporarily use as much electricity as two or three entire houses. As more people buy Leafs, Volts, and Teslas, that poses a challenge–the added strain on electricity supplies could actually force utilities to run more power plants.
Southern California Edison, a utility that supplies power to L.A. and a huge chunk of the surrounding area, is experimenting with an app that could help solve the problem.
“What we want to do is to make sure electric cars don’t create additional stress–or make us fire up some gas-fired peak plants to meet demand,” says Doug Kim, director of advanced technology at Edison. “So managing the rate of charging, the amount of electrons that we flow to the cars, becomes really important.”
In an app that the utility tested last year, customers could get notifications when it was best to plug in. On a hot day, when the utility is already struggling to keep up with demand from air conditioners, the app suggests that EV owners wait–and even earn a little extra money back.
“We pay customers through incentives to reduce demand at certain points through the day,” explains Kim. “So there’s some extra incentive that we can provide customers. We also provide customers the ability to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be part of this today, I have somewhere that I need to be.’ It’s flexible.”
Customers who are interested in renewable energy–likely a big portion of the EV-owning crowd–could also get notified when the utility has the most solar or wind power online, and choose that time to charge. The app also tries to solve some of the annoyances of charging by sending notifications when the car is fully charged, or if there’s a problem partway through a charging session.
The experimental app was created as part of Edison’s Advanced Technology lab, a division of the utility that is working on finding solutions for the quickly changing energy world.
“We have a lot of increasing renewables and distributed resources–things like solar on rooftops, energy storage devices, electric cars, and smart thermostats,” says Kim. “All of these devices are connected to our grid, they’re plugged into our system. So it’s our responsibility to figure out how to facilitate all of these different devices. There’s a lot of very interesting and somewhat complicated things happening that we have to manage.”
“We think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to develop solutions to help customers adopt these kinds of technologies,” he adds. “This lab is designed to help our customers get to that point.”
The app isn’t available yet, since the utility developed it only for a pilot. But the utility is continuing to experiment with similar technology, and it may be available soon–perhaps from another developer, since Edison readily admits that they’re not in the business of providing apps.
“This is a demonstration project,” says Kim. “But we’ve shown that it works.”