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Cisco and Imperial College of London harness idling vehicles to mitigate charging load on national grids


Cisco and E-Flex aims to harness the power of idling electric vehicles

Cisco and Imperial College of London harness idling vehicles to mitigate charging load on national grids
While electric vehicles reduce gas emissions, they also create a few problems on their own, including power consumption. 

With electric vehicles gaining traction, the prospect of recharging millions of them at a time places huge pressure on electricity grids, especially during peak charging hours.

This is where vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies come into play. The V2G concept turns electric vehicles from consumers of electricity to suppliers by enabling them to give back power to the grid or a smart building when they are not in use. In this way owners of EVs can create a new source of revenue.

The E-Flex Project, a joint initiative between Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) program, and the Imperial College of London, and other partners transforms electric vehicles into net-zero contributors.

It all comes down to their batteries, which are great at powering vehicles when driving around town but can have an equally important impact when parked.

“When you harness the battery capacity of electric vehicles at scale and give that power back to the grid,” said Peter Shearman, Head of Innovation, UK and Ireland, at Cisco, “you begin to reach a critical mass in which you impact carbon emissions, cost/benefit economics, design, compliance with government net zero regulations, and much more.”

The E-flex Project has been proving the potential of V2G with fleets of vehicles owned by public and private-sector organizations, starting outside London and expanding to include 20 locations around the UK, all outfitted with two-way charging stations.

“We’re not talking one, two, or three vehicles,” said Roy Donaldson, Business Solutions Architect, Global Transformation accounts for Cisco UK and Ireland. “We asked, what happens when a fleet owner parks 100 electric vehicles? Suddenly, I go from having a single van with an 80-kilowatt battery, to one that’s multiplied by 100. That’s 8,000 kilowatts potentially sitting there parked. We wanted to see how that fleet concept changes the dynamics.”

The timing of many idle vehicle fleets dovetails perfectly with what Donaldson describes as “the non-linear nature of energy demand.”

“Energy demand has a ‘Duck curve’ demand spike,” Donaldson continued. “It comes along relatively straight and then spikes upward from 4 pm onwards to 10 pm. You don’t want to be adding more pressure to the grid to cope with that duck curve.”

Idling EVs are a power plant
While the E-Flex project has focused on fleets of vehicles, Guy Diedrich, who as SVP and global innovation officer is responsible for Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration, sees its application going way beyond just public-sector and commercial fleets. 

Case in point: in order to create a two-way energy distribution at places like the airport, for example, or even at home, where cars might sit idle for days or weeks at a time. By contributing to the grid, vehicle owners could potentially collect revenues or reduce their overall energy expenses. According to Donaldson’s calculation 10,000 idle vehicles could represent 800,000 kilowatts of storage capacity.

“What if I get in my fully charged car in the morning, drive to work, run my errands, and come back with half the charge left in car,” said Diedrich. “I plug that car in at home and at that moment, my vehicle becomes a net contributor, back to the grid with the half charge that is embedded in that car. Because there’s a surge in demand as people are coming home, cooking dinner, turning on televisions, air conditioners, and all the other things that we do at home. Then at a fixed time after midnight, that vehicle starts drawing a charge again.”

To mitigate issues in two-way energy distribution in the E-flex project, Cisco has contributed its technology and expertise in key areas, including cybersecurity, connectivity for two-way charging stations and cloud-based app performance.

Specific solutions include IR807 routers and Cisco’s Umbrella cloud-security solution, all tied together with an intuitive operations dashboard. Meraki cameras added to physical security at charging stations.

“The potential is huge in this space,” said Sielen Namdar, Industry Executive and Cisco’s Global Sustainability Lead for Industries. “Particularly for industries such as utilities, transportation, retail, government, and energy suppliers. Integrating electrification into their systems opens up a whole new dimension of business models and opportunities to innovate.”

“Across 20 different trial sites stretching from Scotland way down to the South coast, we’ve found a lot of value in aggregating this power,” said Shearman. “It has allowed us to do things like participate in frequency regulation markets where you're helping the grid balance its loads. And we found we could get good carbon impact through the offset value of not drawing down power. It’s actually generating carbon credits, which in the UK are a tradable commodity.”

Smart buildings, and business parks with their own microgrids, powered by renewable sources including wind or solar, could be another important application.

“Vehicles can act as local energy storage alongside renewables,” said Shearman. “It makes the whole concept work better by helping with the fluctuations in renewable-energy generation and moves a smart building closer to net zero.”

“I recently read an article in California where they were asking people to slow down on the charging of their cars,” said Diedrich, “because they were putting too much stress on the electrical grid. That’s why E-Flex is one of my favorite CDA projects, because it enables electric vehicles to be truly sustainable.”

“This is clearly an innovation project,” said Donaldson. “If you go back a few years to when we started, it was all a big question mark. We were trying something very different in the marketplace. And we learned so much. We now know how to build a two-way electric charging network. And we can really help accelerate and scale this kind of infrastructure and innovation across the globe.”