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In the second instalment in Electric Autonomy Canada’s EV charging discussion series, panelists revealed how smart investments, new technologies and innovative management can help ensure grid readiness for EVs

As the number of electric vehicles on roads goes up, questions about whether Canada’s electrical grids will have the capacity to keep up with future power demands are at the forefront of the minds of many industry experts and electricity users alike.

To dive into the challenges and opportunities this situation presents, Electric Autonomy Canada this week hosted a panel discussion with experts from Alectra, Natural Resources Canada, Peak Power and Plug’n Drive. It was the second session in a five-part series on public EV charging in Canada that Electric Autonomy is holding this November.

The panelists touched on many approaches that can enhance grid resiliency while providing cost advantages to consumers, including expanding the grid infrastructure, adopting time-of-use rates, harnessing battery storage systems and utilizing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.

You can watch the full discussion, sponsored by Alectra, in the video player and read the summary below.

Challenges with the grid

According to Matthew Sachs, COO at Peak Power, a Toronto-based software and artificial intelligence company that turns energy assets into decentralized electricity sources, the main issue the industry faces with energy grid capacity is being able to meet “instantaneous demand” (i.e. the peak) at any moment.

“The problem facing utilities at every scale around the world is that they have to size all of their infrastructure for the moments of peak demands — so the hottest hours of the year, the coldest hours of the year, plus 15 per cent for reliability,” says Sachs.

So even though the utilization rates of most grids in the country are 20 per cent, assuming the status quo approach, the advent of more EVs – one million estimated for just Ontario alone by 2030 – will require construction of even more infrastructure.

Daniel Carr, head of smart cities at Alectra Utilities, which serves several Ontario municipalities west of Toronto, says Alectra anticipates needing 20 per cent more infrastructure than it has currently to handle the rise in peak capacity over the next 20 years.

But building more infrastructure will be expensive. A study in the U.S. found that it will cost US$75-to-US$125 billion to build infrastructure to accommodate the expected 20 million EVs there by 2030. Costs can also be compounded by the fact that most people have a similar daily routine and will plug in their vehicles around the same times, as well as desire fast charging speeds.

What utilities are doing

To reduce the need for new infrastructure and keep costs down, Alectra is looking at new ways of interacting with customers and the introduction of new technologies to lessen the amount of charging that occurs during peak times.

“We want to try and limit the amount of infrastructure we have to build [and] stay more within the infrastructure that we’ve already got,” says Carr. “But I also want to highlight the fact that I think that EVs are a superior technology and a benefit to society; we’re getting fewer emissions, we’re saving money on fuel, we’ve been using lower-cost electricity. I think it’s okay to spend some of those savings on building up the electricity system so that we can make sure that we’ve got the capacity there.”

Apart from building infrastructure, Alectra is also looking at alternative solutions. For example, the utility spearheaded a time-of-use rate pilot that tested ultra-low pricing for electricity overnight in exchange for higher prices during the day and during peak times. Ontario will be deploying a similar province-wide ultra-low overnight rate structure in May 2023.

“Better planning is also part of this; so being able to really forecast where the demand is going to show up so we can prepare for it because it’s not going to be a peanut butter spread evenly across the service territory,” says Carr. “There’s gonna be hotspots that we’re going to want to be prepared for.”

NRCan programs to support grid readiness

For its part, Natural Resources Canada has a number of programs underway to help respond to the challenges the country will face in order to advance grid readiness for electric vehicles.

The Smart Grid program is a $100-million program over five years that funds the demonstration of smart grid technology and deployment of smart grid systems to accelerate smart grid development across the country.

The department also has the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Demonstration (EVID) Program, which is a $76-million program that supports the demonstration of next-generation EV charging.

“A variety of these projects address grid challenges in a number of ways including load management, as well as novel business models at multi-unit residential buildings and workplaces,” says Bronwyn Lazowski, senior policy advisor for NRCan. “We also support projects that look at bi-directional charging, energy storage, grid impacts and vehicle-to-grid applications, as well as innovative charging hardware and software.”

NRCan also has the Clean Energy for Rural and Remote Communities program, the Indigenous Off-Diesel Initiative and the Northern REACHE Program to support communities that are off-grid. They aim to bring energy equity and support capacity building for clean, renewable and reliable energy that also improves the skills and knowledge of the workforce within these communities.

As beneficiaries of some of these government funding programs, Peak Power’s Sachs attests that they “really do help to leverage innovations and make them commercial-ready.”

In order to get the grid ready, the ecosystem requires everyone to have a role to play, adds Sachs. “The government has to set direction and the most practical way that they can put weight behind that is with funding for pilots. The utilities can demonstrate what a smart grid model can look like. And of course, a role for the private sector is taking chances, trying out different technologies, and seeing what can be successful.”

Building consumer awareness

When it comes to consumer perspective on grid readiness, Cara Clairman, president and CEO of Plug’n Drive, a non-profit organization that promotes EV adoption, says that consumers are thinking less about whether the grids are ready for EVs and more about grid capacity, if electricity prices will go up and if the electricity they receive is clean.

These questions are already fairly easy to answer, says Clairman. The majority of Canadian provinces run on clean, renewable energy and even in those that don’t, EVs are still cleaner to operate over time than combustion vehicles. When it comes to pricing, because electricity is regulated, Clairman is “confident that we’re never going to see a giant spike in electricity prices” due to EV uptake.

She also says consumers require more education about the ways they might leverage opportunities between EVs and the grid.

Emerging options such as V2G technology, which enables vehicle owners to get paid by utilities for drawing surplus power from their vehicles, which in turn will help cut grid costs and lower emissions, are not yet on the average consumer’s radar, says Clairman.

“I think what we need to do first is help the consumer understand their use of electricity,” she says. One way to do that is by giving them price signals and informing them that they can set timers on their chargers to benefit from much lower energy prices depending on the time of day.

“Then when we get to the point where — ‘Hey, you know, you could actually earn some money with your EV battery, and here’s how’ — I think people will respond. I mean, certainly, I see it as a great opportunity.”

Visit here register for the upcoming series of webinars.

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