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How an EV charging pilot program at Plymouth State could help transform the grid

Stephen Foster, director of Facilities at Plymouth State University, and Bill Johnstone, business development executive at the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, stand in front of PSU's EV chargers. The school plans to get two new ones in the spring.
Mara Hoplamazian
Stephen Foster, director of Facilities at Plymouth State University, and Bill Johnstone, business development executive at the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, stand in front of PSU's EV chargers. The school plans to get two new ones in the spring.

If you’re not looking for them, Plymouth State University’s electric vehicle chargers don’t stand out as much as the town’s Irving Oil and Citgo.

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But soon, the school will have two new chargers that are part of a much bigger project — a pilot program to test out technology that could help power New Hampshire’s electricity grid using electric vehicle batteries.

Working with the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, Plymouth State is installing vehicle-to-grid charging stations. Those bi-directional chargers will allow the university's two electric Nissan Leaf cars to double as battery storage for the energy system.

The batteries in the car would give power back to the grid when there’s a lot of demand for electricity.

These vehicle-to-grid chargers will be the first in the Co-op’s territory. PSU’s pilot is one of many demonstration projects across the country, and experts believe vehicle-to-grid technology could change the grid by lowering electricity bills for participants and supporting the transition to renewable energy, among other outcomes.

“It could be a way to establish battery and energy storage systems that don't require as much centralized investment,” said Brian Eisenhower, director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability at Plymouth State.

The project started with a pitch from Bill Johnstone, a business development executive at the Co-op, in the summer of 2021.

“It's baby steps here – two Nissan Leafs are not going to make a difference in the New England grid,” he said.

“But it's testing the technology, making sure it's viable and using this as a test case to show our members of the cooperative that it works,” he added. “Obviously as more come online, it's going to have a much larger impact [on] the grid.”

Johnstone said the system cuts costs by having the cars charge at times when the price for electricity is cheap, and discharge when the price is high. Chargers give power to the vehicles at off-peak times (like two in the morning) when the demand for electricity is low and energy is cheaper.

Then, the fully-charged cars will drive around during the day and might plug back in during peak hours, around 5 or 6, when people are cooking or turning their lights on. The power will flow from the car to the grid, so the batteries can provide electricity for people when they need it.

Bi-directional charging systems similar to this one could also be dispatched during power outages. During a blackout, Nissan says a Nissan Leaf’s battery could power a home for 3 to 4 days, depending on electricity usage.

The car batteries will be “behind the meter,” sending electricity to the school’s ALLWell Center first. That will reduce the amount of electricity the school takes from the grid. Anything left over will be shared with the grid as a whole.

The system helps save money, but it can also help keep fossil fuels off the grid, Johnstone said.

“If you can reduce the peak demand during these times, you're keeping the older, less efficient generation assets off the system,” he said. “It’s really a benefit for New England as a whole.”

For their pilot project, the New Hampshire Electric Co-op will communicate with the chargers, giving daily predictions about the hourly cost of electricity for the next day.

The technology PSU is piloting could also help smooth a transition to clean energy, according to University of Delaware professor Willett Kempton, who invented vehicle to grid charging and wrote the first paper about it in 1997.

How V2G could change the electricity system

Kempton said vehicle-to-grid technology could transform our energy system by leveling out the fluctuations that could happen as renewable resources, like solar and wind power, become a bigger part of the electricity grid.

In a system where vehicle-to-grid chargers get real-time signals about how much storage is needed from the electric grid operator, Kempton says they could help balance the grid on a large scale.

ISO-New England, the non-profit that operates New England’s electricity grid, says the variability of renewables (as well as natural gas, which the grid relies on heavily), poses technical challenges for grid reliability.

To illustrate the challenge, Kempton contrasts the energy system with the food system. There’s lots of storage in the food system – warehouses, grocery stores, refrigerators. But the electricity grid works differently.

“Electricity is a weird commodity,” Kempton explained. “You have to make it at the same time you're consuming it. I mean, imagine if you had to pick apples off the tree at exactly the moment when somebody wants to bite into an apple? That's weird,” he said.

A lack of storage can make it tough to use resources like wind and solar. We can’t turn those energy sources on and off, and they can fluctuate throughout the day. Many see storing energy in batteries as a big solution to those sources’ reliability issues.

ISO-New England says batteries to store energy are growing in popularity. And even though costs for batteries are falling, they can still be costly.

Battery construction also requires mining mineral resources, an industry that could harm the environment through water use and contamination, and the process has produced human rights violations.

Kempton says instead of making new batteries, we could use the batteries already present in the growing number of electric vehicles.

“It’s about the same order of magnitude, weirdly,” he said. “You halve the amount of lithium you have to mine, you halve the number of batteries you have to make,” he said. It’s a huge savings in how much storage is needed. And obviously, the cost is much lower,”

There’s also a profit incentive for people who would implement vehicle-to-grid systems, and for car owners themselves. Kempton says he thinks a bit differently about the technology now, compared to when he started 24 years ago.

“There are lots of existing markets that can make money [by] doing this,” he said.

Vehicle-to-grid systems are largely in the demonstration phase, with some early commercial adoption. Some companies are working to commercialize the technology – like Fermata, the company PSU is working with to implement their chargers. The New Hampshire Electric Co-op is also working with Nuvve, a V2G company Kempton co-founded, on other vehicle-to-grid opportunities in New Hampshire.

Kempton said he’s been wrong when he’s tried to predict when V2G technology would take off. But projects like the one at PSU help get more utility companies and grid operators exposed to the technology. And though he won’t predict a specific timeline, he says an electric utility like the Co-op could impact widespread adoption.

“It's got to be some electric company who's got the right regulatory environment in their area, where they can make money and say, ‘we want to make this available to a lot of our customers.’ I think that's the point at which it'll happen,” Kempton said.

Cars on campus

When their batteries aren’t powering the grid, Plymouth State’s electric vehicles will be used for a kind of peer-to-peer Uber. Some students will have on-campus jobs driving their peers to class and to their dorms. The school says the cars could be particularly helpful for students with disabilities looking to get around campus.

A group of students helped the school develop three sustainability-themed designs for the car wraps. Shaelyn King’s car has a design that incorporates vines and electric plugs wrapping around the car.

“I kind of wanted it to be the more straightforward of all the three choices – like, this is an electric car. We're doing this for the environment,” she said.

Some say the vehicle-to-grid system PSU is installing could be hard to get lots of car manufacturers, utilities, and customers to participate in, citing a lack of defined value and the possibility that the system could degrade a battery.

But University President Don Birx says the possibilities are big, because the pilot addresses several problems, from cleaner transportation to grid reliability. He’s also looking forward to Plymouth becoming a stopping point for travelers in electric vehicles driving through the North Country.

Birx says students are the perfect people to work on piloting a technology that could change the whole electric system – they’ll need to live with the impacts of climate change.

“Our big job is to educate students. So the more we can build practical lab experiments to demonstrate to students and involve students – particularly ones that are so related to the challenges they are going to face – all the better,” he said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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