As electric vehicle sales start to surge, Canada’s grid operators are rethinking their network models, equipment, budgets and customer outreach — to ensure an effective, efficient response to shifting demand
Canada’s utilities and grid operators are facing a watershed moment with increasing load demands and changing patterns of consumption.
The catalyst? Drivers plugging in to electric vehicles.
“EV charging…represents significantly different load behaviour from pre-existing consumer loading,” says a 2019 report from utility company EPCOR to Alberta’s Utility Commission.
“It’s gone from being a hypothetical scenario…to being something that utilities have to consider in a more serious way,” says Jeff Turner, senior research lead, clean mobility, at Dunsky Energy Consulting.
“They can really get out ahead of this before it does become a problem.”
Projections say EV growth will follow a steep hockey-stick curve. Power and utility providers need to start responding quickly today to overcome the energy demand hurdles ahead.
In 2015, the average Canadian household consumed over 25,000 kWh of electricity. EVs are likely to increase the household consumption of electricity by 3 to 20 kWh during periods of charging. EVs, driven 25,000 kilometres per year, are projected to use 4,400 kWh annually.
But the challenge isn’t merely an issue of increased demand.
Historically, household energy consumption rates remained stable and were more or less predictable, based on community habits. But EV ownership means an immediate change in individual household consumption behaviour. And those changes have implications for the rest of the community — because even the addition of just a few EVs charging on the same transformer circuit creates a cluster where the load could stress the system.
“Once we know where these chargers are and what’s happening from a customer usage perspective then we say ‘what is the impact on that transformer?’” says Terri-Lynn Duque, director of strategic innovation at ENMAX in Calgary.
“We are looking to be as proactive as possible before we get to that failure state.”
The economic argument of upgrades
In 2019, Geotab released a report looking into the impact of EV charging on the grid and utility providers and distributors. The study, Charge the North, stresses that “[t]he risks that utilities need to prepare for are at the distribution level.” The report also draws attention to the difference in geographic infrastructure needs depending on an urban or suburban setting.
In the latter, drivers are using their EVs 80 per cent more on average — resulting in more frequent charging — and, based on the grid facilities, are more susceptible to “volatile load curves with substantially higher peaks” that could overwhelm transformers.
“As climate, geography and commuter habits are going to [be] unique for every area it is imperative that utilities properly profile their own service territory,” cautions the report.
In order to meet the changing electrical needs of an EV-driving society, some aggressive strategies and expenses must be undertaken. Utilities can either invest in more generating capacity, work to adjust demand patterns to improve the efficiency of use of existing output or strike a balance between the two.
Upgrades to a transformer may cost between $50,000 to $100,000 per unit, depending on the complexity.
Some may balk at the price tag of any changes, but a recent study from the University of Victoria’s Institute for Integrated Energy System and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions found the cost of doing nothing is far more.
“You might think ‘my goodness, electrification is going to cost us a fortune, we can’t afford this’ and that’s just not true,” says Victor Keller, the study’s lead author.
Infrastructure costs can be offset, Keller says, by continued conversion to renewables and from utility providers adjusting how they distribute electricity to do it more effectively at a much lower cost.
Synchronizing users and incentives
Efficiency and direct user-to-utility communication is the theme of much of the research around integrating EVs and the grid.
This model of energy servicing is called “smart charging.”
Smart charging is the dual approach of making EVs “visible” to utility providers and developing direct communication between charging points and the grid.
“If everyone is charging their vehicles at the same time, the transmission lines will likely get clogged up,” says Keller. “[But] by implementing some type of smart charging, [utilities] might be able to save heavily on the cost of upgrading the transmission lines.”
“That saving would fall on top of the $80 per year per vehicle savings from smart charging. So, once you factor in the avoided [infrastructure upgrade] costs, it starts to become more attractive because it’s more like $150 or $180 dollars in savings per year.”
But the success of the smart charging model is largely contingent on how much of the public participates.
Absent any smart charging protocol, “how the EV charger is actually being used by the customer is completely controlled by their preference,” says Duque.
Proactive pilots running across Canada
To help determine the best ways to move beyond that model, utilities are running pilot programs across Canada to gather data on EV consumption patterns and test methods of demand response, or, smart charging.
For Turner, the primary question is: “How can we ensure that EVs charge at the best possible time for the grid, so that these things become an overall benefit for all customers?”
One key, experts say, is through the use of financial/pricing incentives to ensure customer cooperation for charging when it’s ideal for the system rather than on-demand.
The City of Calgary, in partnership with ENMAX, is tackling the other side of the smart charging equation: visibility.
“Notification is something that’s really important for us so we do understand where charging is happening in our service territory,” says Duque.
“We’ve been working…to build out a system with [the city’s] permitting process. Whenever someone has to pull a permit specifically for an EV charger we have a notification. We can take note of that and make sure that we are watching for clustering in that area.”
ENMAX is also monitoring 35 residential and 20 public Level 2 chargers and five DC faster chargers in Calgary to understand usage. They financed 75 per cent of the home installation costs in exchange for user participation in data collection.
Not all grids are equal
Canadian utility providers are looking to find EVs, where and how many. In Quebec the experience of marrying EVs and the grid is different.
“If you look at the peak of the Hydro Québec network in the dead of winter we could be very close to 40,000 mW. That’s higher than the peak of the state of New York,” says Angelo Giumento, manager of grid modernization at Hydro Québec.
Quebec is unique in North America: it experiences some of the coldest temperatures and the province runs on electrical heat — specifically electric baseboard in homes.
That method of heating room-by-room allows for a lot of “diversity” in the grid, despite the heavy load.
Quebec’s grid is tested after long power outages — over eight hours — when customers reheat entire homes at the same time. This “cold load pick up” can be twice what a normal peak is.
Hydro Québec encourages smart grid and incentive program development, but know they are able to accommodate EVs in the meantime.
“Choices that were made in the ’70s and ’80s are really helping us now…[the] whole grid architecture and structure is done differently because of the way the load profiles are set up,” says Giumento. “The grid is built to sustain quite a bit of load so, when I’m putting the electric vehicle into the equation, I’m not as concerned as some of my counterparts might be.”
As more Canadians transition to EVs, all utilities have to look at adapting their existing systems.
Whether its a nuts and bolts upgrade to infrastructure, creating incentive programs or improving the symbiotic relationship between customers and providers, there is an opportunity for efficiency, environmental and economic benefits.
“If we make sure EVs are charging when the sun is shining or wind blowing…the electric utility system is able to operate more efficiently. It’s better utilized and the utility is collecting more revenue without having to spend more money. That will bring down electricity costs for everyone whether they drive an EV or not,” says Turner.
“I think that’s the most exciting opportunity we are looking at.”
Editor’s Note: Electric Autonomy Canada will continue to profile smart charging pilot programs running across the country; bringing context, insights and voices of expertise to a nuanced challenge facing Canadian utilities from coast to coast to coast.