The EV charging hubs of the future may look a lot like megawatt-scale battery farms — if U.S.-based charging pioneer Nuvve has its way.
This week, the company announced its plan to develop what it calls V2G hubs: large-scale interconnections to serve EV fleets ranging from ride-share cars and delivery vans to school buses and long-haul trucks.
Like many U.S. EV charging providers, Nuvve has raised capital by going public via merger with a special-purpose acquisition company. It wants to bundle financing and services for fleet owners and operators to speed the build-out of charging infrastructure needed to quickly electrify U.S. transit and freight fleets.
Tapping the spare battery capacity of those EVs is central to Nuvve’s “transportation-as-a-service” concept. Grid services can “generate revenue that will allow us to provide a service at lower cost,” Marc Trahand, Nuvve’s executive vice president of marketing, said in an interview this week.
Whether full-scale V2G is an idea that’s ready for prime time remains an open question. Nuvve’s technology has been operating for more than a decade in pilot projects in Delaware and California, and at larger scale in European markets including Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands.
But V2G still must overcome significant barriers to achieve widespread adoption. EV makers are leery of turning over their batteries to be tapped for capacity, although a growing number of them are adding bidirectional charging capabilities to their vehicle designs. On the grid-facing side, utilities are still in learning mode in terms of managing the interconnection and operational issues involved in two-way power flows from charging stations.
Opportunities to earn money in wholesale energy markets or provide utility grid services are also in their infancy, although Nuvve and other V2G developers are looking ahead to federal and state regulations opening those markets in coming years.
School buses are a key early-adopter market, since their schedules include predictable times to provide grid service. The Biden administration’s $174 billion EV infrastructure and investment plan includes a call to electrify at least 20 percent of the country’s nearly 500,000 school buses over the coming decade.
Concentrating EV charging at the megawatt scale at points with existing large-scale interconnections could smooth the grid-integration challenge for these bus fleets, Trahand said. One of Nuvve’s latest V2G school bus projects with two Illinois school districts is sited near a now-closed coal-fired power plant, for example. While that project has only two EV buses right now, the school districts involved “want to put 90 more on a parking lot there that already has a big connection thanks to that power plant,” he said.
So far, the formidable upfront costs of electric buses and charging infrastructure have limited projects like these to small-scale, grant-funded efforts. With roughly $62 million in cash proceeds raised through its special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) offering in March, Nuvve is “looking at using some of the private funds to accelerate this,” he said.
EV charging as a grid service: The competitive landscape
Nuvve’s capitalization is relatively small compared to other U.S. EV charging network providers also taking the SPAC route to raise money.
Nationwide charging provider ChargePoint raised about $480 million in net proceeds from its March debut on the New York Stock Exchange, and another national charging network operator, EVgo, plans to raise about $575 million in its upcoming SPAC. However, these two companies are largely focused on passenger cars and light-duty EVs, as are numerous other public charging providers such as Electrify America and Blink.
Medium- and heavy-duty EV fleet charging at depots, truck stops and similar sites represents a different challenge, both in terms of the electricity demands involved and in scheduling rapid and reliable recharging of vehicles on tight schedules.
In most cases, corporate fleet owners, city transit authorities, school districts and other entities with high levels of organizational capacity can take on these tasks on their own. But early experience with smaller-scale pilots has shown the value of having access to expertise in siting and developing charging hubs to minimize costs and time delays.
Companies such as Amply, Highland Electric Transportation and the recently launched TeraWatt Infrastructure have sprung up to fill this need, assuming the considerable risks associated with getting charging hubs built and operating on budget and on schedule. They also finance the upfront costs of charging equipment — or in the case of Highland Electric, the electric school buses themselves.
Grid services are an important part of the EV charging hub equation, starting with preventing utility demand charges — hefty charges imposed for spikes and monthly peaks in power draws from the grid — that can make or break EV charging economics. Some EV charging sites are being paired with solar panels and batteries to reduce grid loads, as well as to provide carbon-free power.
As EV charging becomes more prevalent, more active interactions with the grid could offer revenue opportunities alongside cost controls. Amply has partnered with CPower, one of the country’s biggest demand-response providers, with an electric school bus project in New York as its first test of the value of this combination. Amply and Highland are also looking at adding V2G services to their load-modification options.
Leapfrogging the barriers to V2G
It’s going to take time for V2G opportunities to become a major part of EV fleet charging economics, Amply CEO Vic Shao said in an interview last week.
“Demand response, V2G and grid services [are] only going to play a more prominent role as the industry scales,” he said. Amply’s project at the Brooklyn depot of New York school bus contractor Logan Bus Company will feature five EV buses to begin with, which Shao described as “sort of noise, in terms of the grid services it’s going to be able to provide,” he said.
More buses will expand the potential grid value but also bring new problems for utilities and EV charging operators to manage, he said. Utilities have “network protectors throughout the distribution grid...[and] if they see backfeed, they’ll just trip, and everything stops,” he said.
But as cities and states ramp up to meet aggressive transport electrification goals, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to electrify the entire school bus fleet by 2035, “grid services have to play a prominent role,” he said. “If we don’t have an active program to reduce peak power consumption, we will have to spend money to deck out and add copper to the ground, as it were, at tremendous expense. Grid services is really a cheaper alternative.”
Nuvve’s hub approach is meant to leapfrog those early-stage barriers by concentrating V2G in locations where grid interconnection and integration costs can be minimized and the value of energy that the fleet vehicles provide can be maximized.
“You go from being, frankly, pretty annoying to the utility, to one of their top 10 customers,” Jacqueline Piero, the company’s vice president of policy, said in an interview. “That changes how they look at the relationship entirely.”
“At the same time, we understand that finding a physical location — land that’s in a useful location for customers and coincides with grid capacity that supports this — is one of the first big projects,” she said. “There will be sweet spots.”
Combining school buses, delivery vans, transit buses, ride-sharing cars and other classes of EVs that charge at different times of day and night can increase utilization of the chargers, which is critical to paying back their costs more quickly, she said.
Nuvve’s virtual power plant software can distribute loads serving the grid across the vehicles that happen to be plugged in to avoid overtaxing them. Another method to avoid overtaxing participating batteries is starting with grid services such as frequency regulation that account for a relatively light load.
North American standards are also reaching a turning point for V2G charging, Piero said. Nuvve’s project in Illinois is among the first commercial-scale V2G project implementing the UL-1741-SA requirements for smart inverters, which allow communications and controls between EVs, chargers and utility grid-monitoring systems.
As for the transmission-grid-scale opportunities, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 2222 mandates that U.S. grid operators open their wholesale energy markets to distributed energy resources, including electric vehicles. EV charging pressures on utilities and grid operators were part of the agenda at FERC’s "grid of the future" technical conference last month, Piero noted.
“You’ve got a lot of medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles that are going to be electrifying,” she said. “You need to be ready for this kind of thing popping up at the transmission level.”
(Article image courtesy of Nuvve)
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