How PG&E and BMW Plan to Make “Smart Charging” Even Smarter

By Jonathan Marshall

Charging an electric vehicle (EV) costs the equivalent of a dollar per gallon of gasoline, if you do it overnight on PG&E’s EV rate plan. Now PG&E and automaker BMW are partnering to see if they can bring the cost of charging down even further, while making the electric grid even cleaner.

Their joint Plug-in Electric Vehicle Demand Response Pilot Project, announced today (Jan. 5) at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is easier to understand than to pronounce. Basically, the idea is to pay EV owners for the use of their batteries to replace some fossil-fueled generators as tools to stabilize the electric grid.

Batteries from electric vehicles could supplement the grid during periods of peak demand.

This pilot is part of a number of projects PG&E has been implementing, all focused on testing batteries as a resource for delivering energy boosts when demand peaks, or for smoothing out the intermittent ebbs and flows of energy from renewable resources like wind and solar.

Strategically located batteries can potentially replace some gas-fired generators, which add to local air pollution and greenhouse gases. So far, however, they remain extremely expensive.

But industry experts are intrigued by the idea of using electric vehicle batteries — already paid for — to do double duty, supporting the power grid when they aren’t powering their owners’ vehicles.

That’s exactly what PG&E and BMW plan to try. In this pilot, PG&E will pay BMW for the power management benefits of putting up to 100 customer batteries to use on our grid. BMW in turn will give participating owners of their electric i3 cars incentive payments to lower their cost of ownership, promote further sales, and demonstrate BMW’s commitment to sustainability. BMW will begin enrolling customers in the pilot program later this month.

BMW also plans to put large numbers of retired EV batteries to use, giving them a “second life” as managed storage units.

A recent report by the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative at UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools said such second-life batteries could be a great resource for supplying energy when the sun goes down or the wind dies down. That’s a critical need as renewable energy becomes an ever greater part of PG&E’s overall energy mix.

“Instead of recycling them immediately, the thousands of batteries that will be coming out of electric vehicles in the coming years could be repurposed, leading to a flood of inexpensive batteries that can provide energy storage services for customers, utilities, and grid operators,” it stated. “These second-life batteries could provide multiple value streams to customers and grid operators and benefit the environment by integrating variable renewable energy and reducing the upfront cost of electric vehicles.”

In such applications, the study noted, second-life batteries could be worth several thousand dollars each—further reducing the cost of owning an EV.

PG&E has been working on “smart charging” technology pilot programs for several years, as reported on Currents. The pilot with BMW will take to the next level both the technology and the business case for integrating EV charging and other grid operations to benefit customers and society. It will also test whether third parties—such as automakers—can work with utilities to manage smart charging programs.  If successful, this pilot has the opportunity of expanding to a “utility scale” program, reaching thousands of EV customers throughout the state.

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"PG&E" refers to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation.
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