Batteries on wheels — cars powering the grid

Batteries on wheels — cars powering the grid

Many solar-powered Australian homes now feed power back into the electricity grid, so why can’t electric vehicles too?

That’s the concept being explored by University of Queensland (UQ) transport scientist Dr Jake Whitehead, who has been awarded a $180,000 Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship (AQIRF). He is one of 35 fellows in the latest round of Queensland Government funding of scientists who are carrying out original research that will benefit the state while partnering with industry.

Dr Whitehead holds a joint research position at the UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation and School of Civil Engineering. He has two PhDs in transport science and engineering, and is an expert in many aspects of transport engineering, planning and policy, ranging from congestion pricing and taxation to electric vehicles.

Dr Whitehead is also a member of the International Electric Vehicle Policy Council and a Co-Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

His new project will investigate consumer preferences towards electric vehicles (EVs), the current and emerging charging behaviours of EV owners, and consumers’ willingness to use EVs to provide energy services back to the electricity grid.

The research is aimed at capitalising on the significant energy-storage potential of EV technology, while supporting the development of affordable, sustainable energy for Queensland.

The average EV has a range of 300km and stores enough energy to run an average home for about three to four days. Most vehicles are driven less than 50km a day, so the unused capacity is an opportunity to store the renewable energy in peak generation periods and potentially sell it back to the grid during peak demand periods.

Electric vehicle owners who power their cars with renewable energy from their home or the grid could then sell that clean energy back to the grid when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Now wouldn’t that be a win for all!

We spoke to Dr Whitehead to find out more about this exciting project.

What led you to this study?

During my double PhD I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to many different countries. These experiences exposed me to a diversity of approaches to transport system planning, but also brought into clear focus the sheer magnitude of the challenge that our global society faces in moving towards a sustainable transport system.

The negative consequences of our current transport system are stark and clear — whether it be the hundreds of thousands of premature deaths that occur each year around the world due to vehicle pollution, or the major impact transport emissions are having on our planet.

As a researcher, my motivation comes from knowing that the work I am doing can and will make a positive difference to society. The major attraction of transport science for me was the fact that my work is constantly focussed on trying to understand what people want, why people make certain decisions, and ultimately how we might be able to influence those behaviours to achieve better social outcomes for everyone.

This motivation has led me in recent years to pay particular attention to understanding how we can accelerate the transition to zero-emission transport and energy systems, directly in line with the Queensland Government’s aim to develop affordable, sustainable energy, as well as the Government’s EV Strategy: The Future is Electric.

There are already many studies focussing on the technical aspects of electric vehicle charging. In contrast, however, there are significant gaps in knowledge of the costs and benefits of smart-charging technologies, like vehicle-to-grid (V2G), together with how willing consumers are to participate in these new energy services.

As the EV market continues to grow in Queensland, there is a significant opportunity to better understand how this technology can not only clean up our air, and reduce our transport costs, but also support the development of an affordable, reliable and sustainable energy system across our state.

Dr Whitehead seated in an electric vehicle. Courtesy The University of Queensland.

How long till we see cars putting power into the grid in Australia?

Already there are a number of different businesses and researchers pursuing opportunities to trial smart-charging technologies in Australia, encouraged by the rollout of similar technologies in Europe, Japan, China and the United States. One of the major barriers, though, is a lack of local expertise and knowledge.

It will become increasingly important in the near future for EVs and/or associated charging infrastructure to have built-in smart technology to ensure all charging does not occur at the same time, particularly during peak electricity periods. At the same time, consumers are increasingly interested in how they can use the spare energy in their vehicles to power their homes and/or make some money selling energy back to the grid.

In the next five to 10 years, I am confident we will see the emergence of a market for EVs to trade some form of energy services with the grid. This will not only lead to lower costs for EV owners, but also lower electricity costs for everyone else connected to the grid.

To put the potential of this opportunity into perspective: there are around 14 million cars in Australia. If these were all electric, with an average driving range of 250 kilometres, this fleet would store enough energy to power the entire country for 24 hours, and still meet average daily transport requirements.

What do you need to explore to make this a reality?

Firstly, we need to work with governments and businesses around Australia to build greater awareness and understanding of the economic benefits that electric vehicles can deliver. We need to provide Australians with the opportunity to hire and test-drive EVs so they can learn more about how the technology will benefit their families.

We also need to work with consumers to investigate what smart-charging technologies they are willing to accept, and how much they would want to be paid to participate in these programs.

Following this work with the public, we aim to pilot smart-charging technologies at a range of sites to investigate the opportunities and barriers. We will utilise these experiences to inform the ongoing development of strategy and policy to support the broader uptake of electric vehicles.

What infrastructure is needed to put vehicle energy into the grid?

As a first step, smart-charging infrastructure will primarily focus on controlling the speed and time of charging, with the aim of minimising the cost for EV owners, maximising the use of renewable energy, and reducing the impact of charging on the electricity grid. The controls can reside directly in the vehicle or in the physical EV chargers.

The next step, in exporting energy from the vehicle to the home or the grid, requires bi-directional chargers. Some companies overseas are already selling these products to customers, however, due to low volumes, they are relatively expensive. By demonstrating the benefits of a fully connected and controllable electric vehicle fleet to the grid, we can increase demand for these products and reduce costs.

The other exciting element of this technology is that during natural disasters, EVs could be used by emergency services and the general public to provide backup power.

Who are you working with?

The industry partners we are working with on this program are looking for a greater understanding of current and emerging charging behaviours, as well as local consumer preferences towards EVs and smart-charging technologies.

Our project partners are Tritium — world-leading, Queensland-based manufacturer of EV fast charging infrastructure; Evie Networks — a national EV ultra-fast charging network operator; Veitch Lister Consulting — one of Australia’s leading transport modelling firms; and Mitsubishi Motors — EV manufacturer, producing EVs that now include a V2G-capable plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

All partners will be providing their expert knowledge of the local and global EV markets to inform the consumer surveys delivered through this project, as well as the design of the smart-charging infrastructure trial.

How will the Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship help your work?

The AQIRF is a great initiative for supporting early and mid-career Queensland researchers to build closer collaborations with industry partners to solve and address local issues.

I am humbled to receive this AQIRF, which is helping to fund this three-year study — also supported by the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund (major investor in Tritium and Evie Networks), and the UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation. This three-year project will also support the recruitment of a dedicated e-Mobility PhD student.

How will your work make a difference to Queensland?

Too often we hear that nothing that we do will make a difference. This AQIRF will make a significant difference to my career, and in turn, I hope that the research I produce will return a dividend to Queensland.

We should recognise that no matter whether it be a country, a state, a city, a household or a single person, no matter the size, every decision we make and every action we take can have both positive and negative consequences. No matter how small we think our role is, we all have a collective responsibility to work together towards a more sustainable future.

The truth is that we can all make a difference if we try, and we should start trying to make that difference today.

About the Advanced Queensland Industry Research Fellowship

An important consideration in awarding the Advanced Queensland Industry Research Fellowships (AQIRF) is that the researchers must partner with industry.

This is to ensure the research generated has real-life application, from developing therapeutics to benefit Queensland patients, to developing new technologies and innovations that have the potential to create jobs and bring investment to Queensland. The partnerships also assist research to move out of the lab, through commercialisation and into the market.

The fellowships are part of the $755 million whole-of-government Advance Queensland initiative to foster innovation and build a more diversified Queensland economy.

Visit the Advance Queensland website for the full list of recipients.

Last updated 04 Mar, 2020
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