A BMW i3 electric car charges up during a 2014 conference in San Jose. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

When electricity demand is high, i3 owners can now delay a charge—for a cash rebate.

America’s electricity grid wasn’t designed with electric vehicles in mind, and with an influx of EVs replacing gasoline cars, power utilities have started to feel the strain. If too many EV owners charge up their car during times of high energy demand, the grid can get overwhelmed, leading to higher energy costs and greater risk of blackouts. Avoiding that situation requires the grid to grow or become more efficient in terms of how it manages the power supply.

That’s where a new initiative from BMW called ChargeForward comes into play. The program kicks off this week with a group of 100 Bay Area i3 drivers who have given BMW the ability to rearrange their charging schedules in response to high demand. Using an app, drivers say when they need their car each day and BMW works with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the local utility, to adjust charging schedules remotely, when necessary, based on real-time energy usage data. The goal is to smooth out demand peaks so the utility doesn’t need to ramp up extra production and consumers don’t have to pay peak rates.

“The utilities buy and manage power to meet peak loads,” says advanced technology engineer Julia Sohnen, who works on sustainable transportation at BMW’s Silicon Valley technology office. “It’s our hope to show that we can shift the flexible load of electric vehicle charging to help the utility more efficiently use the existing resource. If we can manage the hours that we charge our electric vehicles maybe they can install fewer plants to meet those peak loads.”

Utilities maintain expensive fossil fuel-based peaking plants for just those moments when demand spikes beyond their typical production capacity. Demand response programs like this one can can help utilities avoid calling on those costly backups, writes Jana Corey, PG&E’s director of electrification and alternative fuels, in an email. They could also reduce the costs associated with upkeep of power lines and transformers in anticipation of those rare peaks.

Utilities rely on expensive and fossil-fueled turbines to produce power quickly during demand spikes. (REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)

That ability to space out electricity demand becomes increasingly significant as the body of electric vehicles drawing energy from the grid rises. PG&E’s service region now includes more than 65,000 EVs. Since debuting the i3 in 2014, BMW has sold a total of 10,548 models nationwide (as of the end of June), with almost 4,500 sold this year.

The fully electric i3 takes 3.5 hours to fully charge, at which point it can zip around for approximately 81 miles. The trick with ChargeForward was finding a way to adjust those charges without leaving drivers stranded.

How ChargeForward works

Participating drivers use a dedicated smartphone app to tell BMW when they need their cars charged. When the grid is having trouble meeting demand, PG&E will instruct BMW to cut up to 100 kilowatts of usage. At that point, BMW alerts drivers and gives them the chance to opt out of a charging delay if they need the car urgently. For those who don’t need their cars right away, BMW can push back the charge for up to one hour, until the grid is less stressed.

If the delayed charge doesn’t free up enough energy capacity for PG&E, BMW has a back-up option: its own in-house energy supply. BMW had a bunch of lithium ion batteries left over from the earlier Mini E electric car pilot project. Instead of letting them waste away in storage, company scientists cobbled them together to create 240 kilowatt-hours of stationary storage at a Mountain View facility, powered by a 100-kilowatt solar panel installation onsite. Aside from supplying the whole office with energy, this allows the company to push its own energy into the grid when needed.

For their participation in the 18-month program, drivers get a $1,000 gift card from PG&E up front and the potential to earn another $540 gift card at the end for full participation (though that reward diminishes if they frequently opt out). To put that bonus in context, the BMW i3 starts at $43,395 (base MSRP plus destination and handling fee), so the lure of an additional $540 probably won’t be a huge decider. But chances are i3 owners bought the car to lessen their carbon emissions, and working with the grid to avoid expensive and dirty demand peaks fits right in with that mission.

The best-case scenario here is that BMW finds it relatively easy to switch around charging at crucial moments without disrupting anybody’s day. “One thing that we’re going to be really investigating with this pilot is understanding how people charge, how flexible they are with respect to when they charge, and how best to design future products in this realm to make it something that has a benefit to the customer and to the utility,” says Sohnen.

Demand-response technologies and programs may reduce the risk of blackouts, like the one that struck San Diego in September 2011. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Beyond BMWs

ChargeForward marks a smart application of corporate expertise to tackle a problem facing both customers and society at large. If well-funded companies like BMW can pioneer this technology, they could pave the way for local governments and nonprofits to adopt the model. If a region is facing peak demand that could trigger shortages, why not push a text to all electricity subscribers warning them to shut off nonessential devices to help avert widespread blackouts?

The initiative also helps correct an incongruity with how electricity is priced: consumers don’t immediately feel the costs of peak power consumption. Residents of the Bay Area sign a contract with PG&E committing to certain rates for their tier of energy consumption, or a time of use plan that charges different rates for different times of day. Because these rates are set ahead of time rather than floating with supply and demand, ratepayers don’t pay any more in moments of peak energy usage the way, say, an Uber passenger does during surge pricing. (These costs can get passed along in the form of higher overall rates to support expensive peaking plants.)

There’s a political logic to this, says Jimmy Nelson, an energy modeler for the pro-clean energy Union of Concerned Scientists. Imagine San Franciscans returning home from work one summer day to learn that electricity to air condition or cook on an electric stove had become prohibitively expensive right when they needed it—heads would roll. In fact, utilities are legally obligated to keep rates reasonable so the public can have easy access to power. The very novelty of EVs, though, opens up new ways of envisioning their relationship to the grid.

“There’s this idea that electric vehicles are a new source of electricity demand, so we might have a little more freedom to decide how we operate them,” Nelson says. “You’re not changing anyone’s previous behaviors.”

Thus BMW has stepped into that new space to fill the gap between supply costs and demand costs. Where individual customers would be at a loss to know when their personal EV charging imposes a disproportionate burden on the grid, BMW finds out and takes action on their behalf. The long-term outcome theoretically benefits all involved: overall grid costs come down for ratepayers, more people buy electric cars from BMW, and those drivers pay PG&E to charge their new cars.

Beyond that, ChargeForward shows how investments in electric vehicles can drive expansion of clean energy, says Nelson’s colleague David Reichmuth, senior engineer at the clean vehicles program at UCS.

“Programs like this are going to allow the electric grid to be cleaner but also be more reliable,” he says. “It’s a great match between electric vehicles and clean electricity. We want to move both of those forward at the same time.”

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