The “electrify everything” movement that wants to switch homes, cars, industry and everything else from fossil fuels to electricity is a necessary step to avoid total climate disaster but it raises a real concern: How in the world are we going to generate all that extra power?
The answer – part of it, at least – is that we won’t have to. Technology has made it possible to control demand and supply in ways we can’t with our current dumb grid, so we can get far more work out of every electron.
An excellent example has just started in the scattered communities that get their power from New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC), which just launched a pilot project with a clumsy name: The Transactive Energy Rate.
The pilot will let 50 of their customers financially benefit from an electric vehicle or battery storage system by giving them advance notice of what electricity rates will be, hour by hour, on the following day. If they’ve set up a two-way connection, the customer can buy power to fill their batteries when the price is low and sell it back to the grid when the price is high.
They’ll make a bit of money, providing an incentive to participate and, importantly, will help create a distributed storage system that can help meet electricity demand during hot July afternoons or a February polar vortex without the need to build more power plants or power lines.
NHEC has tested this approach with two Nissan Leaf electric cars at Plymouth State University. They offset the ALLWell Center’s building load for approximately 90 hours over the course of a 6-month period, saving hundreds of dollars.
Based on that, NHEC has modeled that a home battery system could generate $1,200 a year by buying low and selling high. Doing it with an electric vehicle will save less, since you need to keep some of that power on hand to drive, but if everything goes right, NHEC estimates a fully electrified home could make up to $300 a month.
Right now the program is available only for GeneracPwrCell System batteries, either alone or combined with solar panels, the Bolt and Volt electric vehicles from GM, and a specific meter from Fermata that you can program to, for example, draw electricity whenever the price is below a certain point and sell it when the price is above a certain point.
Why so limited? Fermata is the only two-way charger of its type that is UL-listed and most auto companies haven’t extended their battery warranty to cover charging and discharging, said Dave Erickson, director of access & distributed resources at NHEC. These limitations are rapidly disappearing.
Details are online at www.nhec.com/energy-management/transactive-energy-rate-program/
Importantly, technology improvements mean the transactive charge doesn’t require installing a separate meter, which has long been the case to take advantage of special power rates.
“It works on a virtual meter, there’s no physical meter necessary. Electronics in the car charger is sending data to the Co-op every day saying ‘here’s what I did today’ and we turn that into a meter-read … which allows us to bill on it or credit on it,” said Brian Callnan, NHEC vice president for power resources and access.
If the pilot succeeds, more brands and more types of devices such as heat-pump water heaters will be added and more people will be signed up. NHEC has a list of aggregators who can help customers (“members” is their preferred term, since NHEC is a cooperative) sign up.
NHEC’s pilot is unusual but not unique. A similar pilot is being operated by Liberty Utilities in the Upper Valley and in Vermont, which is way ahead of New Hampshire in the energy transition as Green Mountain Power has run a full-blown program for a couple of years, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, in both those cases the utility has some control over the customer’s device. NHEC’s pilot is much more “live free or die.”
“The cooperative doesn’t control anything. In our case we just send a price. If a member wants to operate, wants to use it, they can go ahead,” said Callnan.
This is important because the thought of the power company reaching into your house (so to speak) and turning down your air conditioner will keep a lot of people from signing up for programs like this as they become widespread. A purely voluntary program may not be as effective from a systems-operation point of view but it will be a lot more popular.
One other point: Because it’s a cooperative, NHEC didn’t have to get its transactive rates approved by the state’s micromanaging Public Utilities Commission. That made things a lot easier for them.
Pessimists will point out, and quite rightly, that this program doesn’t produce any electricity – in fact, it removes a little bit from the system because storage is never 100% efficient. How does it help handle “electrify everything”?
It helps by enabling the need for electricity to be shifted over the course of the day so it can be more easily met by existing systems. In other words, it helps us control demand rather than endlessly spending to ramp up supply. That’s the key to the modern power grid and the reason that “electrify everything” doesn’t portend disaster.