A better way to do smart EV charging: Talk to the car

Telematics can give utilities and companies like WeaveGrid and ev.energy more ways to tap EVs to help the power grid — and make sure EV owners stay in the driver’s seat.
By Jeff St. John

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EV owner with dog plugging in a charging cord
EV telematics offer more data than EV chargers for utilities trying to tap them as grid assets. (WeaveGrid)

Some electric-vehicle owners may be happy to earn money by letting utilities control when they charge, a way to lessen strain on the power grid. But they also want to be confident they’ll have a full battery when they need it. What’s a good way to ensure that happens? Enable utilities to communicate directly with EVs.

That’s why Apoorv Bhargava, CEO of WeaveGrid, sees telematics — the onboard computers and communications tech inside EVs — as a focal point of smart EV-charging programs. While most utilities have relied on EV chargers to serve that role, WeaveGrid partners with utilities to enable them to tap into telematics for the information they need to manage smart-charging programs. The company’s utility customers include Baltimore Gas & Electric, Xcel Energy in Colorado, Oregon’s Portland General Electric and, most recently, California’s Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

That connection to the EV itself can build a cleaner picture of what’s happening in mobility to inform what’s happening in electricity,” he said. How does a customer behave? What value can that behavior create for the electric grid? Having an incomplete picture on the data side makes that very difficult.”

Getting accurate data about customer needs is particularly important if EV owners are facing an impending grid blackout, such as those occasionally triggered in California to reduce the risk of sparking a raging wildfire.

Last week, WeaveGrid and PG&E teamed up to launch evPulse, a smart-charging pilot program available exclusively to customers who live in areas at risk of having their power shut off as part of PG&E’s regime of wildfire-prevention grid outages on hot and windy days. These public-safety power shutoffs,” or PSPS events, have left hundreds of thousands of customers without power, some for days at a time, over the past three years — and for EV drivers, that loss of power could leave them stranded.

The evPulse program, designed to support between 8,000 and 16,000 customers when fully rolled out, will alert EV owners before these outages occur, Bhargava said. That can help ensure that their cars are charged whenever they need them to go, whether it’s to drive to Grandma’s during a PSPS event,” or, as vehicle-to-home charging technology becomes more widely available, to have them on hand whenever they need their [home electricity] to be backed up.”

A utility might see an EV primarily as a major new grid load to control, or perhaps, a battery on wheels to be tapped to help the grid. But WeaveGrid’s work is premised on the understanding that an EV owner sees it differently. The customer values their car as a car, above and beyond anything else,” he said. People have very different relationships with their vehicles than they do with their thermostats, air conditioners, water heaters or other devices that are typically targeted for remote control by utilities.

I don’t drive my smart thermostat to work. I don’t put my kids inside my smart thermostat,” Bhargava said. Mobility is a distinctly high-value application.” 

Telematics: The tool for tracking batteries on wheels 

Telematics are embedded in almost all modern vehicles today, using GPS cellular communications and other technologies to track location, driver behavior and specifics about vehicle operation. Automakers have their own systems like General Motors’ OnStar, Toyota’s Safety Connect and BMW’s BMW Assist. Third-party systems such as those from Geotab and Samsara connect fleet vehicles.

EVs have an even greater need for telematics systems, which can closely track the status of their batteries, estimate how much range they have left and help drivers plan ahead for recharging. That really matters not just to us, but to the automakers,” Bhargava said.

Adam Langton, energy services manager of BMW North America, said the German automaker has been using telematics for EV managed-charging programs in Europe for years, as well as for long-running projects with North American utilities including PG&E and Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

The advantage we have over a charging system is we know everything about the vehicle: the state of charge, how long it will take to charge and what the battery size is,” Langton said. That gives BMW’s utility partners more insight than smart EV chargers can provide.

Langton also pointed out that many EV owners don’t have EV chargers. A lot of customers won’t install a charging station” at home, he said. They’ll just plug their car into a standard 120-volt power outlet, he said, or maybe a 240-volt outlet, which some homes already have for clothes dryers, using a power cord that many automakers include with their EVs. Charging programs that use telematics are open to these EV owners too.

A growing number of utilities are turning to telematics for these reasons, said Zach Woogen, policy manager at the Vehicle-Grid Integration Council, a group representing EV makers and charging manufacturers. Beyond PG&E, California’s other two big investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, are seeking regulator permission to launch their own telematics-based managed-charging programs, he noted.

We’re going to need both these telematics approaches and the networked charger options if we want to scale EVs as a grid resource,” Woogen said. Not every customer will be able to afford, or will want to use, a networked Level 2 charger. If we want to scale, we need to be offering the largest possible set of pathways to participate.”

Joseph Vellone, head of North America for charging-software vendor ev.energy, said about 90 percent of participating utilities are using EV telematics in the managed-charging programs his company runs. Ev.energy’s customers include National Grid in Massachusetts, United Illuminating in Connecticut, and community choice aggregators Silicon Valley Clean Energy and MCE in California.

Frankly, what we’re seeing is, even with rebates available, a lot of customers are not interested in buying a networked” EV charger, he said. 

Tapping into EV telematics does require companies like ev.energy and WeaveGrid to work with automakers to integrate their technologies. PG&E’s evPulse program now works with Hyundai, Kia, Lexus, Tesla and Toyota EVs, for example. WeaveGrid is busy integrating with more vehicles, Bhargava said.

We’re not yet at a point in the industry where there are common standards for vehicle telematics,” Vellone said. But that hasn’t stopped utilities from starting to implement managed-charging programs using telematics. The way you do this is by accepting the reality of vehicle telematics programs and finding workarounds.”

From simpler EV-grid integration to more complex mobile tracking

One big issue is whether a managed-charging program is built around directly rewarding customers based on a metered measurement of every kilowatt-hour they use for charging, Vellone pointed out. Many utilities are leery of usage data that doesn’t come from a utility-owned meter, although regulators in California and New York are starting to require utilities to use data from EV chargers or EVs themselves.

PG&E’s evPulse program avoids this issue by offering customers upfront payments in the form of gift cards for signing up rather than tying their compensation to metered energy use, Bhargava explained. Customers can choose a smaller incentive of $50 to $100 in exchange for receiving behavioral notifications and nudges” via the WeaveGrid smartphone and telematics apps, which encourage them to charge at off-peak times, he said, as well as that very valuable service of informing you before a PSPS event happens.” They earn an extra $50 if they allow PG&E and WeaveGrid to automate their EV charging to get the cheapest charging possible,” while ensuring full charges in advance of potential power shut-offs, he said.

But some utilities are allowing customers to use EV telematics to track and get paid for how much energy they use on a more granular basis, Vellone said. National Grid’s EV Off-Peak Charging program uses EV data to pay customers a rebate for every kilowatt-hour of charging done after 9 p.m. and before 1 p.m. on weekdays, for example. The first year of the program has shown customers earning an average of $10 to $15 per month, he said.

Importantly, that rebate is available whether customers are charging at home, at work or anywhere else. The vehicle is linked to the customer account that gets rebated,” Vellone said. As long as you can follow that customer around, they can get that rebate wherever they go.”

That ability to tie utility rebates and incentives to individual EVs rather than charging locations could be vital for more advanced methods of rewarding drivers for when and how they charge, BMW’s Langton pointed out.

What if a utility said, I wish there was more load at this location at this time and less load at that location at that time?’ We can respond to that to shift charging around as vehicles drive from location to location,” he said.

Bhargava also emphasized utility interest in a wider array of telematics data. Utilities are increasingly asking us, If you can predict where those problems are going to show up, especially by having the customers’ data in hand, can you help us go out there and solve those problems?’” This kind of predictive smart charging” requires much more data and sophisticated analysis than is needed for the blunt, reactive way that demand response has always been done.”

Telematics can also connect EV drivers with signals that encourage them to charge when there’s more clean power available on the grid, Vellone said. Volkswagen’s ev.energy-managed Naturstrom Connect program for EV drivers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland basically rewards them for the low-carbon charging they do” by offering points for charging sessions at times when the proportion of renewable energy on those countries’ grids is higher than average. Those points can be cashed in for 5-euro credits to be applied to their next electricity bill, for up to 100 euros every 12 months, he said.

These kinds of automaker-utility partnerships are much simpler to execute in competitive energy markets like those that exist across Europe, Vellone noted. But similar concepts can be applied to markets where utilities don’t compete with each other for customers, much as ev.energy is doing for California community choice aggregators.

We’re seeing a shift away from passive time-of-use rates to manage peak demand and into a much more granular, real-time and dynamic way to manage distributed energy resources, whether they’re EVs or heat pumps or another source of load,” Vellone said.

One of the biggest challenges for utilities seeking to tap into these demand-side” resources, Bhargava said, is to design their programs and offerings in ways that can entice customers to sign up and remain with the program over time. It requires careful attention to provide customers with desired services and appropriate rewards, know just how much of their battery-on-wheels is available for serving the grid, and never tap it beyond that limit.

I think we overhype the extent to which EVs can be used as grid resources when we don’t even understand what the true availability of that grid resource is,” Bhargava said. Savvy use of telematics can help build that understanding.

We’re moving to a world where transportation is dependent on the electric grid and vice versa — the electric grid will start becoming dependent on the transportation sector and what it can provide. The connective tissue between those two things is ultimately the customer — not just a customer, but a driver.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.