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EDF Renewables makes smart EV charging the centerpiece of its distributed energy strategy

Subsidiary PowerFlex makes software for EV fleets that enables on-site solar, batteries, energy management and microgrids.
By Jeff St. John

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solar panels over parking lot

Électricité de France (EDF), like many of its fellow European energy giants, has been branching out from utility-scale renewables and into the realm of distributed energy. Its focus now includes solar panels, batteries and energy control systems to optimize the interplay of on-site and utility-supplied power or to keep sites up and running as microgrids when the grid fails.

But in the case of its EDF Renewables North America subsidiary, its approach is now centering on technology first designed to optimize another type of distributed energy resource: electric vehicle chargers.

PowerFlex Systems is a spinout from the California Institute of Technology that EDF Renewables acquired in 2019. It provides the Adaptive Load Management” software package that runs about 5,000 EV chargers installed in parking lots and garages, mostly in California. PowerFlex’s algorithms ensure that individual EVs are sufficiently charged to their drivers’ needs by the time they are ready to drive away. At the same, the software ensures that the EVs’ collective electricity load stays within the restrictions of on-site power infrastructure and utility demand charges — two major costs for fleet EV charging.

That optimization can shave up to 60 percent from the upfront and ongoing costs of installing and operating tens to hundreds of EV chargers at a location, and it can also allow many more chargers per site than could otherwise be supported without major utility upgrades, said Raphael Declercq, executive vice president of EDF Renewables Distributed Solutions, a San Diego, Calif.-based subsidiary of EDF Renewables North America.

PowerFlex can also monitor total electricity use at the buildings that host the chargers, an important part of the total infrastructure and utility bill management equation since they’re often behind the same meter, he said. Adding solar and batteries to those buildings introduces new complexities into the on-site electricity mix, as well as new resources for PowerFlex’s algorithms to balance.

With EVs becoming a much bigger piece of the distributed energy calculus for customers, PowerFlex has become a one-stop shop for EDF’s distributed energy business. Starting Thursday, EnterSolar, its commercial and industrial solar development subsidiary will sell its systems under the PowerFlex brand and offer ongoing management of single or combined distributed energy technologies for its customers.

We are developing the software ourselves and building the products for the customers, but we’re also building the projects and providing that solution to customers,” Declercq said. Adaptive Load Management is the EV piece we combine with the other aspects of our clean on-site microgrids.”

To grow EV charging, you’ve got to manage it

EDF Renewables Distributed Solutions has installed more than 350 megawatts of commercial solar and more than 40 megawatt-hours of battery storage, and it has several microgrid projects under construction. Many of those installations combine EV charging with solar and batteries, largely using solar carport systems, such as the 1.11-megawatt solar system it installed in Marin County and an 847-kilowatt solar system combined with an 800-kilowatt/1,800-kilowatt-hour battery system at a biomedical research campus in San Diego.

EDF has developed its own energy management software to operate its integrated solar and energy storage systems, which now control about 120 megawatt-hours of capacity across the San Diego region. Typical sites also host more than 50 Level 2 EV chargers, with one large corporate campus hosting 160 of them, he said. (While Declercq wouldn’t publicly name the client, he did say in 2020 that PowerFlex has been doing a lot of business for software giant Intuit.)

Each Level 2 charger can pump out up to 20 kilowatts of power, which equates to total demand of up to 3.2 megawatts for a 160-charger installation. Without PowerFlex to optimize the charging load, such a large increase in demand could require significant utility upgrades to the circuits and transformers providing the campus with electricity, he noted.

We use the Adaptive Load Management to avoid these lengthy and costly upgrades,” Declercq said, as well as to expand the total number of EV chargers a site can host, as the graphic below indicates.

Image credit: EDF Renewables North America

Promising that software can keep those loads in check isn’t necessarily an easy sell to utilities and local building code enforcement personnel, but PowerFlex has proven its capabilities in tests with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as with its own system at its San Diego headquarters.

PowerFlex allows EV drivers to inform the system of how long they intend to be parked at the charger and how much charge they’ll need by the time they leave. It then modulates the total load across the EV charging fleet to ensure those needs are met, while also keeping the total load within prescribed limits.

It can also take into account the time-of-use rates and demand charges imposed by utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric, which can reduce monthly electrical bills by at least 25 percent” compared to charging, Declercq said. Here’s a graphical representation of how that works.

Image credit: EDF Renewables North America

This concept of managed charging isn’t unique to PowerFlex, of course. EV charging is going to become a major new source of grid demand as governments and corporations push their plans to electrify transport into overdrive. Multiple studies, including recent ones from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, show that EV charging could either overload the grid or provide a new resource for absorbing rising levels of renewable energy, depending on how they’re managed.

EDF isn’t the only distributed energy player with EV charging expertise under its belt. Enel X, the distributed energy business of Italian utility Enel, has combined the managed EV charging expertise of acquisition eMotorWerks into its solar, battery and energy management offering. Shell, the Dutch oil giant that’s acquired a host of distributed energy providers including behind-the-meter battery vendor sonnen, has also bought several EV charging companies, including Greenlots and NewMotion.

EV charging infrastructure companies such as EVgo, Electrify America and ChargePoint are also engaged in managing the loads their chargers impose on local grid circuits. Companies such as Amply, Nuvve and Terawatt Infrastructure are working on solar, batteries and bidirectional vehicle-to-grid charging for medium- and heavy-duty EVs.

Kelly McCoy, an EV analyst with research firm Wood Mackenzie, noted this competitive landscape in relation to EDF’s PowerFlex offering. Most EV charging system makers are in the earlier stages of integrating them with broader on-site power management needs, which does make sense, particularly paired with solar and storage, so they can reduce peak demand on the site,” she said.

EV charging as a centerpiece of the distributed energy landscape

The task of managing EV charging becomes more complex when it’s incorporated into a microgrid, or a system that’s designed to keep itself powered when the grid goes down. California’s ongoing risk of wildfire-prevention power outages has made it the epicenter of EDF’s microgrid work, with projects including a Central Coast winery and the Port of San Diego now underway.

If you have a microgrid opportunity, the idea of having at least a few EV chargers will be part of the solution,” said Isaac Maze-Rothstein, a microgrid analyst with Wood Mackenzie. He recalled a conversation he had with a large-scale microgrid developer last year: I asked him, Do you think there will be microgrids that won’t have EV charging?’ He said no.”

While EVs haven’t yet been tapped as a source of power for these microgrids, that possibility is an intriguing one for EDF, Declercq said. When we look at an electric vehicle, the first thing we see is a battery on wheels. It offers all the flexibility we’ve been longing for as energy developers.”

Simply modulating the ongoing charging of EV fleets offers value to the grid without actively tapping their batteries, he noted. We’re already participating in a demand response pilot with one of our EV parking lots” in California, he said, though he declined to provide more details.

EDF is also managing its combined distributed energy resources in relation to the carbon emissions intensity of the grid power its customers are using, he noted. As a recipient of California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program funds for its in-state battery projects, the company is exposed to the marginal carbon emissions data provided to the state program by WattTime, aimed at ensuring that state-supported batteries are operated in a way that reduces their emissions impact. (WattTime and Canary Media are both supported by RMI.)

Similar data can inform how a customer chooses to balance its EV charging with on-site solar and battery operations to maximize that parameter if the customer so desires,” Declercq said. It takes some data science to optimize those algorithms. You start with historical data, but that’s not enough. You need to anticipate the load from the customer and all the information that’s coming from the grid.”

State agencies and utilities are directing billions of dollars toward boosting the infrastructure to support the rapid growth of EVs. California is in the lead with more than $2 billion aimed at meeting a goal of 5 million EVs on the road by 2030. The California Public Utilities Commission has launched a Vehicle-Grid Integration proceeding to explore how to manage the grid upgrade costs and electricity supply-demand imbalances of millions of EV chargers, as well as more future-looking explorations of how to use EVs to absorb renewable power or provide backup power during grid outages.

EDF has shared PowerFlex’s experience in managing EVs to inform the commission’s work on this front, Declercq said. You’re able to recognize the strains and the benefits of 5 million EVs in California by 2030, which if they charged together would overwhelm the capacity of the grid,” he said. But if they’re managed well, they can maximize the production of clean energy on the grid.”

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.