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Pilot program in Colorado involving 600 EV owners will study how charging can best be matched with availability of wind and other renewable power

by Allen Best

By 2030, Colorado hopes to have nearly a million electric vehicles on the road. They can be fueled cheaply with renewable energy—but only if the charging occurs when there are ample supplies.

How can that happen?

That’s the fundamental challenge being explored by Charging Perks, Xcel Energy’s pilot program that will involve five major automakers and up to 600 owners of EVs.

“This is a really innovative pilot,” says Aaron Kressig, transportation electrification manager for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group.

“The technology that is being used in this pilot is really exciting to me. It’s a step forward from what a lot of other utilities are doing in terms of smart charging. Something like this could ultimately be scaled up.”

Utilities in Utah and elsewhere are also confronting the same challenge of figuring out how to manage the fast-growing demand caused by EVs in the coming decade to nimbly dance with the supply of energy from renewable sources. As you’re likely already sick of hearing, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun disappears daily.

COSSA advertisementGluts of renewable energy can also be a problem. It will linger until means can be found to store large quantities of energy for days, even weeks, and not just hours. Another partial answer may be greater linking of energy sources across broader regions. Colorado currently is something of an island.

The baseline—the old paradigm, if you will—was to just let people charge whenever they want. If they want to do so upon getting home from work at 5:30 p.m., for example, that only adds to an existing peak demand. Xcel’s highest demands each year occur in summer, during late afternoons and early evenings, when air conditioners are cranking.

Time-of-use rates are the next step. They reflect the usual abundance of supplies, explains Kressig.

Usually, Xcel’s demand is lowest in the darkest hours of the night, after most people have gone to bed. And that’s when the wind turbines are usually cranking abundant power. Usually. Most smart-charging applications remain in preliminary stages and rely on “usual conditions.”

Xcel’s new program goes further. It relies upon day-ahead forecasts. In using the forecasts, the program is designed to avoid what Kressig describes as an overloaded electric grid—or to take advantage of unusual wind conditions.

“I think the events where this pilot would be particularly interesting would be something like, an unexpected wind event at 9 p.m. or some unusual time when maybe normally the EVs wouldn’t be set to charge normally until 11 or midnight,” he says.

To address this, Xcel has partnered with now five major automakers. First came owners of Teslas. Xcel on Oct. 1 announced that agreements had been reached with BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Honda. That makes purchasers of their EVs eligible for this pilot program. Customers will get up to $300 for participating.

Central to this program is new technology in the car, not in the garage of the EV owner. That’s where the auto manufacturers come in. This was outside the boundaries of the business model and expertise of Xcel, as it is for other utilities.

In this pilot, Xcel will work with the automakers to remotely manage when vehicles charge. They will do this using onboard communications, smart phone apps, and customer websites. The intent is to make charging optimal for the grid but also at lowest cost and easiest for customers.

Automakers will use information from the customers and their vehicles, pairing it with grid information from Xcel to create a charging schedule that ensures a customer’s vehicle is charged sufficiently and charged at times that are best for the energy grid.

“This is new stuff for them,” says Kressig of Xcel. “It’s been a long journey. A lot of people in the EV community thought they would never get this to work.”

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Xcel may ultimately use this information to design new programs where many more EV customers will be eligible to participate. The utility, which operates in six states, has actively participated for several years in research and demonstrations to advance electric transportation with the Electric Power Research Institute.

“We’re excited because this pilot enables new paths to help manage the grid as we move to increase renewable generation on our system to approximately 80% by 2030,” said Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy-Colorado, in a prepared statement.

“As we bring 30 new (models of) EVs to market globally by 2025, we believe programs like this can simultaneously benefit adoption, the grid, and the environment,” said Alex Keros, lead architect of EV infrastructure and charging at General Motors.

See also: Why rural areas want EV chargers.

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