Vehicle to Grid Services - How the US Military is Helping Drive Towards a More Resilient Future

By Ben Springer and Grant Klein  

Rick Ballard is Program Manager for the Depart of Defense’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Demonstration. He shared with us why DOD is interested in electric vehicles, the benefits of the demonstration, and the potential for civilian and commercial applications.

Wars are almost always fought over the redistribution of resources. Because energy is a fundamental resource that affects our daily lives, the Department of Defense has a strong interest in protecting our energy sources and setting the direction for the nation's energy use.

Though America is fortunate to have extensive energy resources domestically, we still rely on a global market for energy products, especially oil. Reading the headlines of any major newspaper will demonstrate how energy (and specifically oil) can have drastic effects on economies and international political relations. In Rick's discussion, he pointed to one day's paper that included increased auto sales, a looming Russian recession, and an unlikely Iraqi-Kurd alliance, with all three headlines closely tied to oil.

US dependence on foreign sources of oil creates undesired and unnecessary uncertainty for the government. Goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have induced grid operators to migrate their energy sources from coal and oil to natural gas and renewable energy. As the percentage of energy produced from renewable sources such as solar and wind increases beyond about 20%, the grid operators are confronted with power factor issues that are costly to stabilize. Having a source of battery storage can demonstrably enhance power factor management, enabling the grid to increase the percentage of renewable energy on the grid.

For multiple reasons, the DOD has taken the national lead in electrifying its fleet of general purpose (i.e., non-tactical) vehicles. With 85% of the government's vehicles (82,000 cars and trucks in the Army alone), the DOD has the ability to make considerable impacts on alternatively fueled vehicle adoption and research. For example, the DOD is working with MIT’s Lincoln Lab to maximize battery storage efficiencies. Not only does this transition make the military more independent and secure, but also these advances will benefit companies and consumers.

Enhancing grid reliability and resilience is key to the nation's energy security. Yet, even with its vast size and complexity, the grid is surprisingly vulnerable to natural and intentional disasters. As Superstorm Sandy demonstrated in 2012, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns can destroy our grid's infrastructure and disrupt our lives. Additionally, our internet-connected global environment provides the threat of cyber attacks. Just recently we witnessed North Korea virtually shut down Sony Pictures. While we all love the movies, electricity is even more important to the way we live, and it's entirely possible that a larger-scale attack could black out the power grid. To help prevent this from happening, the DOD is aggressively pursuing Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) technology because of its promising grid-stabilization capabilities.

DOD and other partners, including the state of California, are investing $31 million for four demonstration projects of V2G services. These projects seek to aggregate electric fleet vehicles into larger frequency regulation providers, with the ability to respond in 90 nanoseconds to grid signals to reduce or increase the amount of power on the grid. For California, the California Independent Service Organization (CAISO) requires a minimum of 500 kW of capacity to participate in the delivery of ancillary services, including both up-and down-regulation. DOD has found that about 40 vehicles can provide approximately 900 kW of power, exceeding the minimum requirement to participate in grid activity. Since the DOD has a structured, scheduled use of these vehicles, it’s able to commit and manage this minimum availability with the demonstration’s commissioned software.

These demonstrations play into a companion grid security project with Sandia National Laboratory called “Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security,” or SPIDERS. Projects in the SPIDERS program are combining V2G services with other technologies to integrate high levels of renewables while maintaining critical electric services on military installations. These projects have shown great potential in enhancing grid reliability and resilience. Additionally, V2G researchers have identified several ancillary services that could be offered to grid operators on a remuneration basis that would potentially earn revenues to offset the cost of the technology procurement. Indeed, a demonstration with Southern California Edison estimates that V2G services could generate $400-600/month per vehicle of revenue for the owner, assuming availability of the services from 7 pm to 7 am. DOD and its partners are in the process of determining which of the services are most profitable, and most appropriate, for various applications.

Other projects, such as the University of Delaware’s program that utilizes alumni’s electric vehicles for ancillary services, and a battery warehouse proposal in northern California to re-purpose used EV batteries, are beginning to bridge the gap between government programs and commercial use. While a $400/month return on the investment in an electric vehicle is very appealing for civilians, significant hurdles remain to deploying these services at scale, even if the technology is readily available. Grid operators are willing to pay for these ancillary grid stabilization services because they can avoid dispatching more expensive generating units, and provide near-instant response to grid signals to participate in power requirements. However, some grid operators have regulations that prohibit the bi-directional flow of power from vehicle batteries, resisting the trend toward a more flexible, responsive system; while others have yet to understand the potential that such a capability could provide to their operation.

As demonstration projects continue to produce information and technology, the private sector will need to step up the effort to bring vehicle-to-grid services to scale. DOD and the national laboratories are creating public-private partnerships with utilities, universities, and technology companies to achieve this goal. DOD is also tracking developments in other areas of the world, including Europe, so that international partners can help to share and promote this technology in order to benefit from the increased security of a resilient grid. DOD’s diverse partnerships are crucial to maximizing the host of benefits and opportunities that electric vehicles can provide.