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The next step for electric cars is to make them part of the grid

As more people buy EVs, electric systems are challenged by the increase in demand. But there’s also a chance to rethink energy storage.

The next step for electric cars is to make them part of the grid
[Source Image: Sven Loeffler/iStock]
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The number of electric vehicles in the U.S. more than tripled between 2016 and 2020—from 300,000 to 1.1 million—and by 2030, there may be more than 18 million EVs on the road. It’s a challenge for electric utilities because of the new demand as each vehicle plugs in to charge. It’s also an opportunity, since millions of cars can also help store power like a collective battery, sending it back to the grid when it’s needed. But the grid wasn’t designed to accommodate cars.

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WeaveGrid, a San Francisco-based startup that is part of the new cohort at the climate-tech accelerator Elemental, is building software that helps connect EVs to the grid. “There are a series of important questions that electrification poses for utilities. How do we take a system like the electric grid—which is not a monolith, which has many different components and millions of devices on it—how do we take that system and add this whole new use case of transportation?” says WeaveGrid cofounder and CEO Apoorv Bhargava.

The amount of energy needed for each car isn’t insignificant. “A car can be the equivalent of one to two households worth of load, even at a home charging station,” Bhargava says. “And when you’re going to something like a Supercharger, that can be the equivalent of a commercial building.”

The cloud-based software pulls data from utilities and directly from vehicles and uses machine learning to predict things like what driving patterns mean about when someone is likely to charge, or how quickly the numbers of EVs are growing in a particular area and what that might mean for capacity limits on transmission lines.

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One early customer, Baltimore Gas & Electric, is using the software to let Tesla drivers connect to a new “time of use” program that gives a special discount on electricity if someone chooses to charge when there’s less overall demand on the grid. The utility had already been offering rebates to EV drivers who wanted to switch to smart chargers and share their charging data. But Tesla chargers didn’t have the same capability, and most customers who were buying EVs were choosing Teslas, meaning that few were using the program. The new system works with any type of charger; the data is sent directly from the vehicle.

The utility plans to use the software as it tests various approaches for managed charging through a new grant from the Department of Energy. “How can you really actively manage charging for customers so that you can put less stress on the system and still have really happy customers from a customer experience of driving EVs with full tanks in the morning when they wake up?” says Divesh Gupta, director of strategy for the “utility of the future” program at Baltimore Gas & Electric.

In the past, utilities usually had ample time to plan for new demand; if a large new apartment building were being constructed, for example, an electric company might have to upgrade its infrastructure nearby. But “households can buy an electric car overnight, and install a charger within 30 days, without a contractor,” Gupta says. “That’s really different.” Having ways to manage charging can help buy time if the utility does need to make upgrades, and it can also potentially help permanently avoid the need for making those changes.

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The tool also helps keep electric bills lower in general since it can reduce costs for utilities. “One of the reasons why our approach is actually really helpful,” Bhargava says, “is that it reduces costs for all stakeholders, whether you drive an EV or not.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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