Using electricity more efficiently is a logical response to the energy crisis in Europe. Combining electric vehicle (EV) battery power with the electricity needed for buildings is a good way to do this and the technology to do this exists, so why is adoption so slow?
First, electric vehicle owners are unaware of the fundamental role they could play and the necessary infrastructure is not readily available. This is unfortunate because when energy can flow from EVs to buildings and back, it is put to good use, instead of being stored in batteries that will eventually discharge.
Every week, thousands of EVs replace combustion cars on the roads around the world. According to the BloombergNEF research institute, which specializes in the automotive sector, global sales of plug-in vehicles will increase from 6.6 million in 2021 to 20.6 million in 2025. Europe is following this exponential growth curve.
Soothe the fear of missing out
The structure of the electricity generation industry is based on unidirectional flow from large power plants fueled mainly by gas, coal or nuclear energy. Commercial-scale renewables like wind and solar are changing the state of play, but not enough to replace conventional supplies in the near future. Electricity is used for countless applications. That’s why European governments are so worried about the possibility of blackouts if generators fail to get enough gas this winter. The economic and political fallout could be difficult to manage.
Leaders don’t want to have to coerce industrial, commercial or residential power users, but many are already looking at options for power rationing and potential controlled blackouts later in the year. More efficient use of available energy could ease the pressure. By utilizing the energy storage capacity of EV batteries and other systems such as uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), it may be possible to reduce energy shortages and carbon emissions.
Understanding Sector Coupling
Sector coupling connects EVs to buildings. This approach incorporates renewable energy from assets such as building-integrated solar panels or heat pumps. Renewable energy produced on site can be used in the building, or by EV charging stations connected to the building, or exchanged on the national electricity grid to help balance supply and demand. A combination of the three is possible, with software optimizing energy flows. Sector coupling is well understood in the electrical industry but little known by energy consumers because it involves active management of electricity.
A decentralized energy model (essential to decarbonization) involves a multiplicity of two-way energy flows. In fact, a new term has been coined – the prosumer – to describe how businesses, homes and individuals will produce and consume energy and exchange it on the grid. This type of system is very flexible and makes electricity available when and where needed by synchronizing energy flows.
This implies more energy storage capacity for decentralization to work properly, whether in batteries inside buildings or in EV batteries connecting to buildings via chargers. The power grid will need storage capacity to handle increasing volumes of intermittent and variable power from utility-scale wind and solar farms, and to and from prosumers.
Digitization also has a role to play in managing these energy flows. Digital technology will allow even the smallest energy prosumers to participate in energy markets, provided laws and regulations allow them to do so. The production, stock, use as well as the management and cost of electricity will in the future be digitally driven, which means that the prosumer will gain in control but also in risks.
The role of electric vehicles
The contribution of electric vehicles to energy issues lies in the batteries. Energy produced by EVs parked for a reasonable amount of time could be usefully distributed to nearby buildings for immediate use, with vehicles being recharged later when needed. EV drivers could receive financial compensation for this service.
This can be useful in two ways. First, it would spread demand more evenly across national grids by smoothing out spikes in building demand. Second, it could give building owners a strong business case for installing EV charging stations, renewables, and energy storage. They would thus become prosumers exchanging energy with EV drivers, the grid, or both.
Given Europe’s current difficulties in the supply of conventional fuels and its decarbonisation ambitions, digitalisation and decentralization are a realistic, if complex, path to take to prepare for the future.
Tribune written by Jérôme Chaffard, Managing Director Eaton France, Iberia & North Africa
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