How OEMs, Academics and Architects are unlocking the V2G door
The science behind tipping points is as mysterious as it is fascinating. Malcolm Gladwell certainly thought so. The best-selling Anglo-Canadian writer, was so intrigued by these esoteric ‘magic moments’, which have the power to catapult little-known but powerful ideas into the stratosphere, that he devoted a whole book to demystifying this arcane phenomenon.
If Gladwell ever decides to pen a sequel to his best-seller, he would do well to devote a chapter to carmakers, as currently, for an industry on the cusp of profound and palpable change, there is no shortage of material to fill the pages.
Nissan declares a “tipping-point”…
Take next-generation Vehicle-to-Grid technology being developed by Nissan for example. The Japanese OEM which recently boldly declared “the tipping point for mass EV take-up is upon us” sees mass EV penetration as a staging post for something far bigger.
At last year’s International Road Show in Geneva, Nissan first revealed its Vision for Intelligent Mobility. But Nissan’s masterplan is not wholly focused on Vehicle-to-Grid technology. What separates this innovative blueprint from all others is that Nissan is championing a universal, wireless charging landscape where cars don’t just charge and discharge from the grid, but draws and dispenses electricity (from and to) the surrounding roads, buildings and offices too.
The Japanese automaker brought this next generation zero emission vision to life in a short video. Under the cover of a full moon, a grey Nissan Leaf, Nissan’s flagship EV navigates through a futuristic landscape where space-age buildings and ultra-modern wind turbines pervade.
The car then effortlessly self-parks. The driver leaves the vehicle before it wirelessly and autonomously charges itself via inductive loops in the smart street. As day breaks, powerful algorithms in the vehicle, which communicate in real-time with the intelligent infrastructure, ensure that the driver’s home is powered, and that the car has enough energy for tomorrow’s daily commute. When the motorist reaches his office, he does not have to find a parking space. Instead he drives the vehicle into the building. The car then charges the office which, is powered by repurposed Nissan car batteries, before the V2G inverter, also working off intelligent algorithms, draws enough power to enable the driver to complete the drive home.
Converting a vision into reality...
While it is important to stress that Nissan freely admits that many of the technologies showcased in the video are a long way from being realised, late last year it took the first steps in translating this exciting vision to the real-world.
Eduardo Mascarell, Nissan’s Head of Vehicle-to Grid and Stationary Storage, explains,
“Nissan is working on several different fronts to achieve this ambitious goal. It has launched several V2G projects in Europe, which are trailblazing projects which feed into a wider objective - to offer V2G services to any Nissan customer by 2018. While V2G technology could one day generate revenue for motorists, Nissan is also pioneering a series of V2H and V2B products, which could see them save on utility bills.”
In May 2016, in partnership with multinational energy provider, Enel, Nissan launched the first ever commercial V2G trial in the UK.
Mascarell, speaking from Nissan Europe’s offices on the outskirts of Paris, confirms that Nissan hopes to have installed 100 specialist V2G units across the UK, but also accepted that it was experiencing some delays “due to infrastructure compliance for British Standards and matching the technology with British Energy Markets”.
Says Mascarell, “Our aim is to provide added value to our customers and offer them the possibility to monetise the energy stored in their EV by providing services to the UK grid network. We hope the minor issues with the standards agencies will be ironed out soon. But we do not expect it to be a barrier to roll-out.”
And in November, Nissan, in collaboration with power management specialist, Eaton, set in motion a leading-edge V2H system, which the xStorage Home Unit which costs around UK£3,200 to buy (installation not included), is available in the UK, Germany, Norway and France, contains modules of a re-conditioned Nissan Leaf battery, and also a bi-directional inverter, which channels energy from the sun both into the grid and the house.
Mascarell says, “The xStorage Unit, which has a 4.2kW capacity could support an average family’s basic energy needs for two to three days. Depending on the energy usage, and the cycles used, the xStorage system could save a household between EUR€30 to EUR€50 a month in bills.”
Around the same time, Nissan, Eaton and The Mobility House, a Munich-based, an electric mobility specialist, announced a contract to supply a much larger-scale version of the technology in the Amsterdam ArenA, home of Ajax Amsterdam football club, which it confirmed “will be installed by Eaton in the coming months”.
The xStorage Buildings system, which will harness the power of 280 repurposed Nissan Leaf batteries, works in exactly the same way as the home storage unit, but can deliver a much bigger payload - four megawatts of power, and four megawatt-hour of storage capacity. But what does this mean in simple terms?
Eduardo Mascarell, who spent a decade working for Endesa, Spain’s largest utility company, before joining Nissan last year, says “In theory the combined power of the equivalent 280 EV battery packs would be enough to sustain power at the Ajax ArenA for around an hour. However, the main purpose of this technology is not to supply power to the stadium. Instead, the primary aim of the system is to provide energy services to the Distribution Network Operator and the national grid, when it is required. However, in the rare event of a power-cut, the system is able to act as a substitute for the diesel generators and supply back-up power to the Arena, enabling it to fully function until the flow of electricity from the grid is restored.
But while Nissan is working to assimilate zero emission technologies into the urban landscape that is home to over 50 per cent of the world’s population, it may be some time yet before Nissan and the wider industry join the dots which link V2G, V2H and V2B together.
Mascarell explains, “Globally, Nissan has sold 280,000 EVs. That is a huge number of cars and a ‘virtual electric fleet’ that if leveraged and harnessed in the right way, can prove to be both liberating and empowering. It is not that that V2G and V2B directly connect (they are two different technologies) but they do form a powerful synergy in that they are part of a highly sustainable and revolutionary cycle. Take V2G for example. But using it, the motorist not only has access to low-emission mobility, but he or she can also sell energy back to the grid. And when the EV battery has reached the end of its life-cycle, it can be re-conditioned and installed in that person’s house. That is how the two mesh together. And that if we talk about tipping points, that in a nut-shell, is how Nissan is contributing to unlocking an inter-connected and interoperable electricity transmission network.”
In seeking to turn this vision of the future into reality, Nissan enlisted the help of one of the UK’s most prominent and accomplished architects, who worked with Nissan for several years to help frame it ‘Vision for Mobility’ project.
So how long does Nelson, who in a career spanning more than 40 years, think it will take before V2G, V2H and V2B technology seamlessly intertwines?
Speaking to me from his London offices, Nelson, who is Foster + Partner’s Co-Head of Design, says of the pilot which ended in 2016.
“When we began working with Nissan, EDF and the National Grid, we knew that in many ways we had already reached that threshold or game-changing moment. Why? Because we believe that globally, people are just beginning to understand the intricacies of this exciting inter-relationship between vehicles, transportation and the way they we live. Power storage is really the missing piece of the jigsaw: the tipping point that opens up a whole new world of possibility.
“And we firmly believe, from working with a leading OEM, a multi-national utility and UK Power Networks too, that as an architect, if the plans were in place, we could begin work on a multi-residential housing development tomorrow, which would incorporate smart streets where the cars, the roads, the buildings and the grid are all connected.”
Nelson, who has worked on some of the world’s most iconic projects including the new German Parliament building in Berlin (the Reichstag), the Bilbao Metro (Spain) and the Canary Wharf underground station (London), continues,
“And with a battery storage unit installed in each house, it would enable residents to power their homes with a fully charged car for two days.”
But Nelson admits that there are some parts of Nissan’s transformative vision which won’t be ‘shovel–ready’ for some time.
Says Nelson, “While we can deliver networks of smart streets, which sync to the surrounding infrastructure, it could be three to five years before architects can write autonomous, wireless smart charging networks, which include inductive loops embedded deep into the road, into their scale drawings. National legislation may, however, have an impact on this timescale.”
And the next steps?
Nelson says, “National Grid has forecast that there could be 700,000 EVs in the UK by 2020 and many of them are Nissan vehicles. In fact, according to Nissan, there are over 19,000 LEAF EVs and nearly two and half thousand e-NVs on the UK roads. Nissan is currently collecting and extrapolating hard-edge data from a series of V2G trial in the UK and Denmark in order to empirically prove to the industry that its vision is both economically and environmentally sound. Once it has compiled this information from real-world proving grounds, Nissan can share that information with us – statistics, photos and film. Foster + Partners can then weave this information into its architectural plans and reach out to its vast network of global contacts to turn this dynamic and inspiring vision into reality.”
V2G: The hurdles that need to be overcome...
However, there are many in the industry who say the dream of global V2G wireless connectivity is many decades away.
And so if this embryonic, but highly innovative technology is to fully mature, what are the key blockers which need to be overcome?
Dr Jin Yang, a lecturer in Power Engineering at Aston University, and a leading expert in electricity transmission distribution networks believes “identity remains an issue industry will need to solve before mass uptake can occur”.
Dr Yang says, “When I mention V2G to my students and even to people in the industry, there is some confusion as to what V2G is and what it should do. Is V2G, for example, a tool that Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) can use to restore the balance of electricity to households when power-cuts occur, or does it have a more ambitious role to play in the future, in the sense that it could be leveraged to actually supply power at a transmission level? No one really knows and therefore, I think that V2G is just a concept right now.”
Dr Jim Scott, the co-founder of Grid Edge Ltd., which specialises in applying Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to unconventional energy storage including V2G systems, believes that there are question marks around “technology, monetisation and marketing” which is harming V2G’s development and potential.
Explains Scott, “There is a lack of world-class suppliers who can produce V2G units which conform to the various safety and quality standards, it takes a long time to get this equipment from development to market. There are even fewer companies who have the know-how to move the units forward from a technological novelty to a value proposition.
He continues, “But it is the underlying reasons, as to why this technology continues to advance slowly which are really telling. It is not just that business models for V2G are quite niche and a long way from full maturity at present, but there are no appropriate payment mechanisms that can truly quantify the value that this form of energy storage creates. I believe though that if the industry decides to throw their weight behind V2G, then it could still become a mainstream technology by the early to mid 2020s.”
Christoph Heuser, a project manager at Ricardo Strategic Consulting, a global engineering, environmental and strategic consultancy, agrees.
Speaking from his offices in Munich, Heuser says, “When I talk to senior clients in the automotive sector, they are deeply concerned by the lack of a credible and convincing business model. Automotive companies across Europe are struggling to define the USP for providing such a service to their customers and for them that appears to be the main barrier to entry. Nevertheless, there seems light to be at the end of the tunnel.”
Another potential roadblock flagged by Dr Jim Scott is how the electricity distributors and suppliers manage customer data.
Says Dr Scott, “It will largely boil down to reciprocity. Not only will the Utilities, who have struggled recently to win customer trust, have to convince the customer to part with highly sensitive and personal data, they will need to ensure that they safeguard that information from cyber criminals. That will come at a price. What will be the trade-off? Free parking? Free electricity? No one quite knows, but what is clear, is if this technology is to get off the ground, there will have to be some ‘quid pro quo’, and it won’t be straightforward.”
Positioning: where does V2G sit?
But scratch a little deeper and it the question of ‘ownership’ that seems to present industry and government with the biggest headache. With the OEMs allocating more of their R&D budgets to developing ultra-low emission vehicles - and, conversely, the large global utility companies, who have dominated electricity distribution and transmission for decades, now shrinking - deciding where V2G slots into this new world order is no easy task.
Dr Jim Scott believes that V2G “overlaps both the automotive and the electric power industry, with the regulators currently taking a back-seat”.
He explains, “What is very interesting is that the car industry and the Utility companies operate a very different business models. Both are experiencing rapid and profound change, but if V2G potential is to be realised the two sectors will need to work in concert and develop a joint-strategy that demonstrates to the consumer that they truly understand the value of storage and can sustainably commoditise it.”
But for Dr. Scott, it is the Distribution Network Operators (DNOs), the companies who own cables and towers that bring electricity into homes and business, that face the greatest hurdles.
Says Scott, “With millions of people using EV charging systems in the coming decades, the DNOs will have to strike a fine balance. On one hand, the DNOs must empower motorists to charge their EVs and entice them to feed electricity back into the grid at appropriate times. And, in doing so, the DNOs will have to build, develop and maintain the next-generation infrastructure, which is lot more complex than digging up a road and insert a sea of copper cabling. While, on the other hand, and perhaps most critically, the DNOs will need to demonstrate that the tariffs and investments they pursue are proven to be cost-effective and fair and progressive for consumers. That is quite a task.”
It is a viewed shared by Graham Evans, a leading automotive analyst at IHS Markit. Evans believes though that if this highly nuanced technology is to present a marketable to addressing energy shortfall, the ‘silos’ that exist in the industry will need to be eradicated.
Explains Evans, “There needs to be total visibility between the DNOs, the Utilities - and within those electricity companies - the different businesses. For example, Electricity, Transport and Heat have never really had to unify towards a common goal. But now they will have to.
“Implementing powerful and dynamic V2G networks across borders and in different geographies is incredibly complex. Whilst taking energy from a designated source and feeding it into the grid (for example through solar power), matching the phasing and the voltage poses a significant challenge, particularly in locations where the voltage differs or is not hugely stable.
Continues Evans, “But even in less challenging geographies, the DNOs face almost insurmountable obstacles. Take the infrastructure upgrades for example, which are required to support a mass uptake of EVs. Even before considering V2G, these necessary advancements will prove to be extremely burdensome.”
Take the results of the My Electric Avenue project for instance. The Scottish Electricity Networks programme, delivered by EA Technology, which examined the impact of EVs on local electricity networks in the UK revealed that one third of low voltage cable would need to be upgraded, if and when, EV penetration reaches between 40 and 70 per cent. It also estimated that, without smart charge solutions, the economic cost of reinforcing these networks would total at least UK£2.2 billion by 2050.
And Robert Evans, the CEO of Cenex, the UK’s first Centre of Excellence for low carbon and fuel cell technologies, thinks that even if demand control technology succeeds in delaying or reducing the need for nationwide grid enhancement, cost for users will still play a big part in determining whether or not the technology is accepted.
Says Evans, “We are currently at the very early stages of technology introduction. V2G units will need to be approved to the necessary UK standards and regulations. The business case scenarios for V2G investments need to be validated, with financial benefits for users weighed against the cost of the technology.”
DNOs: Heightened Visibility is the key...
One man who has a deep understanding of the “significant and near-term challenges” that the DNOs face is David Smith. Smith who heads the Energy Network Association (ENA), the trade body that represents the UK and Ireland’s transmission and distribution operators, says,
“Smart charging is a significant enabler to maximising the use of EVs (and storage assets more generally) and assisting with the impact of transport electrification on the networks. Therefore, it is key to promote and engage customers of the benefits of smart charging.
Smith continues, “In order to realise these benefits, technology and commercial standards will need to develop to enable visibility and control smart charging of vehicles. It will be essential that electricity networks have visibility of the location, availability and dynamic usage of charging infrastructure. Standards will also allow for safe, secure and interoperable smart charging to be realised.”
V2G: A lack of standards stunting development?
But what are the current standards and regulations around V2G? Are there any? I put the question to the ENA but it was unable to provide me with an answer. I also asked the Society of Automotive Engineers, an international body which creates and develops standards, for an interview but it too declined my request.
But Graham Evans, IHS’s Principal Analyst for Auto Components and Technology, confirmed that that while there are standards in place for actually providing energy to the grid they are ‘disparate and unconnected’, not at all ‘all-encompassing’ and definitely don’t cover the automotive industry.
Evans explains, “There is an aspiration and an interest to create an all-embracing standard. However, bringing all the relevant parties together to agree upon a globally accepted classification would be incredibly difficult. To illustrate the challenge ahead, the industry is yet to reach worldwide consensus on the EV charging plug type despite several years of debate. So, to think that it will agree on a worldwide standard for V2G any time soon, which is far more nuanced and multi-layered than a single standard for charging pins, seems fanciful.”
Dr Jin Yang, who has lectured in both China and the UK, highlights how the lack of clear regulation has led to many grey areas which he says is “causing confusion for the industry and consumers alike”.
“Firstly, if we examine the standards that regulate the relationship between householder and the DNO, they are very confusing and opaque. For example, if a homeowner was to fit a V2G unit outside his or her house, the V2G terminal would need to conform to G83, an industry standard for Small Scale Embedded Generators. However, if the V2G terminal fed electricity into the grid together with the domestic house PV system, then the total power would automatically fall foul of the G83 classification (the current PV rating almost always hits the 16A limit under G83), and would have to be integrated under the G59 standard. The homeowner would need to apply for the connections to the DNOs under the new standard and procedure, which is again time-consuming and puts even more pressure on the DNOs infrastructure hence unavoidable reinforcement.”
Continues Dr Yang, “Secondly, there need to be more clarity for OEMs too. For instance, whenever an OEM sells an electric vehicle, it must inform the relevant DNO. That much is clear. But as V2G is in its infancy, OEMs are confused as to whether the standard which requires them to contact distribution and transmission providers after a sale also applies to V2G. Is the same classification or does a separate one need to be drafted?”
But Stephen Doyle, who heads Ricardo’s Hybrid & Electronic Systems Group, points out a more serious issue which the current standards do not cover.
Says Doyle, “In theory, if you were to start using your vehicle as an energy source to power your house, then in doing so, the car battery would be running on a completely different duty cycle compared to the typical vehicle charging process, which could invalidate the car warranty.”
With several hurdles still to negotiate, it may be some time before we are able to harness V2G’s true potential. But as the clamour for cheaper and cleaner energy grows ever louder, and the demand for electric vehicles increases exponentially year-on-year, you sense that it won’t be long before the ‘tipping point’ that Malcolm Gladwell describes so eloquently is suddenly upon us, and the futurists have moved on to new threshold moments.
Now there’s a thought…