Utilities need to move in the direction of proactive grid management; EVs can help
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Utilities & Grids
Jun 8, 2023
Mehanaz Yakub

An expert panel at Electric Autonomy’s EV & Charging Expo 2023 drove home the importance of grid load forecasting for medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles

With the adoption of electric medium-duty and heavy-duty commercial vehicles across Canada, it is essential for stakeholders to prepare for the impact on electricity grids and future power demands. Electric Autonomy’s EV & Charging Expo panel discusses.

An expert panel at Electric Autonomy’s EV & Charging Expo 2023 drove home the importance of grid load forecasting for medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles

With the adoption of electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles (MHDV) across Canada, it is essential for utilities and other stakeholders to prepare for the impact on the electricity grid and future power demands.

“We need to prepare the grid, ultimately, for these vehicles. We want this to happen and in order for this to happen, we need to have the electricity to power these vehicles,” explained Maddy Ewing, consultant at Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors, during a panel session entitled “Powering freight: Anticipating the North American electrical load of medium- and heavy-duty EV charging,” at Electric Autonomy‘s EV & Charging Expo 2023.

Consequently, it is imperative for utility providers to focus on load forecasting to effectively plan and manage the future energy needs associated with these vehicles.

It’s a “complicated beast,” Ewing added, when it comes to determining the various factors involved in making this transition successful. Considerations include what infrastructure needs to be built, when, how quickly is it going to happen, and policies driving that timeline.

Moreover, the regional distribution of vehicles plays a significant role.

“We’re not looking at a load that is distributed evenly across the region. We’re seeing very small pockets, high concentrations of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that are going to present significant load there,” said Ewing.

Preparing utilities and setting up standards

Efforts are underway to address these challenges and make progress. But the panel highlighted the existing gap between the rate of deployment of medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles and utilities’ ability to accurately forecast the associated electrical load and build the necessary substations.

In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), the energy regulator for the province, is taking steps to ensure utilities plan ahead to accommodate future loads resulting from the adoption of electric MHDVs.

“Our responsibility is to make sure that ratepayers are getting a bill that that’s prudent and that means that utilities are building appropriately and right-sizing,” said panelist Harneet Panesar, chief operating officer for the OEB. “It also means that they’re not leaving their load forecasting activities to the side and waiting for someone to trigger investments that are required now because they need a connection.”

Open communication between fleets and utilities is crucial, said Panesar. Early engagement allows utilities to accommodate changes upfront, instead of retrofitting later. This approach also provides an opportunity for local distribution companies to offer feedback on available capacity and potential location opportunities for fleets.

Improving lines of communication

However, fellow panelist Christopher Ralph, manager of Client Solutions and Design at Lion Electric, pointed out that current communication methods, such as Connection Impact Assessments, are not effective.

“We don’t have a method of communication with utilities…We’re still going through the traditional key accounts method of the 1990s and we haven’t seen those protocols develop,” said Ralph.

In response, Panesar said that solving communication challenges comes down to establishing a proper standardization process.

In Ontario alone, there are about 60 local distribution companies. This translates into 60 different engineering standards, work methods, costs and timelines for providing power to MHDVs. It creates a complex energy sector, said Panesar.

That there is no singular standard across the country creates a barrier for fleets looking to add electric vehicles, agreed the panel.

The OEB is working on standardizing the process in Ontario to bring predictability to communication, information sharing and timelines. The regulator has a page on its website called Engage with Us, where it asks for public input and feedback on these issues.

Ewing pointed to a solution taken by BC Hydro, where the utility is providing an incentive for commercial fleet operators in the province to develop fleet plans.

This approach, she said, particularly benefits the utility because it gives them insight into a fleet’s future load requirements, enabling them to plan accordingly and work with customers to manage the load, shift resources and optimize existing infrastructure.

“We’re seeing some innovative things happen,” said Ewing. “More needs to come obviously and the pressure is on utilities, but we also have to work with them.”

Other fleet needs and opportunities

While it is evident that fleets need to collaborate with utilities, they also require support in estimating energy requirements and effectively deploying electric vehicles.

According to Ralph, larger utilities can play a role in incentivizing EV deployments by offering dynamic rates tailored to specific standards and regions.

An example of this is Ontario, where the province is piloting a rate structure of 2.4 cents per kWh during ultra-low hours and 24 cents during peak hours.

BC Hydro offers a unique service load solely for EV chargers, where fleets can opt to pay a more affordable baseline electricity price during overnight hours and a higher price during peak times, said Ralph. Quebec has a similar program for fleets as well.

Lion Electric is an electric school bus and truck manufacturer with over 2,000 EVs on roads across the country. It created an energy asset, construction and management division to design, procure, install and manage its charger systems and load management for the electric vehicles the company manufactures. It established this division because it recognized that a fleet of electric vehicles presents new opportunities compared to just gasoline.

Around 85 per cent of the vehicles Lion builds are electric school buses, which “represent interesting electric assets on the grid,” said Ralph, since they are parked for the majority of the time.

Ralph highlighted the potential of utilizing electrical assets to address grid-related issues. This includes providing services like frequency regulation, harmonic distortion reduction and load management where “we have hundreds of kilowatts, if not megawatts, in neighbourhoods wiped off during peak demand using these charge management platforms.”

This approach could help alleviate peak demand and turn chargers into revenue sources.

Real world applications

Jurisdictions like Prince Edward Island are already leveraging electric assets, such as Lion Electric school buses, in innovative ways, said Ralph.

There, the government has begun using technology onboard Lion Electric school buses to provide bi-directional charging to emergency centres providing support in disaster-related power outages.

So, while there is an increased reliance on the system to support the charging of these vehicles, fleet vehicles can also serve as valuable backup systems, supporting communities and the grid during emergencies.

“There’s a lot of opportunities,” added Panesar. “It also is interesting, because…the grid is also evolving — it’s modernizing, it’s bi-directional, it’s dynamic. The deployment of capital that’s taken place over the last five years to modernize the grid really was an intention of primarily improving reliability, [but] also has enabled smarter systems.”

“Utilities aren’t just building to peaks — and really, managing peaks is an important aspect to keep costs low [and] create this resiliency — but if you couple that with the capabilities of some of this new technology, it’s a powerful thing.”

Future needs for megawatt charging

The International Council on Clean Transportation recently conducted a study to estimate the charging infrastructure needs for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in the U.S. and found a robust need for megawatt-level charging, particularly to support longer-haul vehicles.

The study suggests that it is not necessary to build all charging infrastructure for MDHDV at once. Instead, it advocates for making investments in charging at scale and at strategic locations across the country. The study also emphasizes the importance of maximizing the use of existing grid distribution capacity and planning for future growth.

When it comes to the need for megawatt-level charging, Ewing calls it the industry’s “blind spot” because of the many unknowns around it.

“There’s probably few fleets right now that need to charge that quickly with such high power. So it’s really about where we’re heading. What is going to win? Is it going to be hydrogen? Is it gonna be battery electric? And when is that demand actually going to ramp up for us to really start considering what that’s going to take?,” said Ewing.

Panesar mentioned discussions with vehicle manufacturers who emphasized the shift towards faster charging and longer-range capabilities for the future.

“So it goes back to the question of ‘Look, you’re making investments now, don’t just plan for now – plan for the future,'” said Panesar.

“But part of the challenge is where’s technology going to go? I still think there are improvements on that technology that we’re going to start seeing actually impact us maybe a little bit down the road, but it’s a bit of an unknown that we’re still trying to figure out.”

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