Dominion backs V2G

A big US utility subsidises school buses as grid batteries.

As a rule I don’t post much on renewable technology. The news is of a steady flow of small, unremarkable, incremental improvements that keep making wind and solar energy ever cheaper. It’s the prices that do it. But every so often, something bigger happens. I think it has here:

Dominion Energy Virginia has published a bullish plan to convert 50 school buses in its territory to electric buses by 2020. That’s just the start, as the company plans to add 200 more per year to hit its target of 1,050 fully electric school buses by 2025.
The company has a request for proposals in the works for electric vehicle manufacturers with plans to open the application to school districts in its Virginia territory this Friday, September 5th, 2019. […]
Dominion is excited to use the buses as vehicle to grid (V2G) batteries, and what’s even better is that the company has stepped up to pay the difference in price between traditional diesel buses and the fully electric buses in order to gain access to this new V2G resource.

V2G – vehicle-to-grid - is the idea of using electric vehicle batteries as storage for the grid. If it works, the potential is vast.
In 2018, there were 5.1 million electric cars on the roads worldwide, and 460,000 buses. (IEA Global EV Outlook 2019 ) Taking 30 kwh as a representative battery capacity for cars (Nissan Leaf) and 320 kwh for a representative electric bus (BYD K9), we have a total EV battery capacity of ~300 Gwh. The global light vehicle stock is about 1 billion, so EVs only represent 0.5% of it. But the growth rate is staggering – over 50% per year. The IEA suggests a global EV stock of 130 million in 2030 in its New Policies scenario (reflecting current policy ambitions), not much more than 10% of the stock allowing for market growth. We would then have a global vehicle battery capacity of ~7,800 Gwh, with plenty of upside.

Suppose we can tap a mere 10% of this for V2G. That’s ~780 Gwh. The Bath County pumped storage dam in Virginia, still the world’s largest (though not for long) has a storage capacity of 24 Gwh. V2G at scale would make a serious dent in the firming problem for very large-scale wind and solar. And it’s a very cheap solution compared to pumped storage or grid batteries: the owners of the vehicles will have bought the batteries anyway, and would not need to be paid much to lend them to the grid with appropriate guarantees and at minimal inconvenience.

A schematic illustration how this would work using Dominion’s school buses (my timetable guesses, not their estimates). On a working day:

  • 0000h – 0630 h: charge bus batteries in garage to 100%
  • 0630h – 0930h: morning school run, buses return to garage with average 33% charge
  • 0930h - 1600h: charge bus batteries in depot to 100%; available for V2G but not used much
  • 1600h - 1900h: afternoon school run, buses return to garage with average 33 % charge
  • 1900h -2400h: interruptible charging; >33% of bus battery capacity available for V2G to meet evening demand peak.

That’s for the 200 school days a year. For the other 165 days, the buses just sit in the garage, working exactly as grid batteries.

The scheme depends on the fact that any bus operator will buy a number of identical buses, but these will follow a mixture of longer and shorter routes. On the shorter ones, the buses don’t exhaust the charge. Given that Dominion is subsidising the purchases, they will be able to insist on as much over-capacity as they want.

There are several takeaways from this news.

1. V2G works. Up to now, it’s been a nice idea with a few pilots to prove it’s feasible. One was carried out in the staff car park of Warwick University  in the English Midlands (report pdf), yielding the significant finding that it doesn’t harm the batteries. Dominion is a pretty standard big electric utility. Its technical staff does not consist of the owl-eyed teenage wunderkinder beloved of Hollywood who hack the computer in Dr Evil’s bunker, but staid, cautious, anal-retentive, middle-aged Dilberts whose idea of a perfect working day is “nothing to report”. (This is not a criticism. Many important jobs in a technologically advanced society, from dentist to missile launch operator, require such personality traits.) If they think V2G works well enough to spend serious money on, and can reliably supply useful volumes of storage to back up the grid supply, it does.

2. Dominion is indeed putting serious money into this. The difference in price between a diesel and electric bus is around $100,000 each (BNEF pdf). (Prices are negotiated for each contract, so this is just a ballpark figure.) Dominion’s maximum liability is then $100m, though battery prices decline steadily and they will end up spending considerably less. What’s in it for the hard-nosed bean-counters?

Here I’m speculating. I think for this money we can rule out a mere greenwashing PR operation. The benefits include:

  • Use of the batteries. However, a big utility could very probably buy the storage capacity directly more cheaply, so they are still paying a premium: one that looks good value to them.
  • A real-life technical pilot for the much bigger future V2G markets for trucks and cars. School buses are far more manageable, with a rigid working day and fixed routes. For cars, you would have ten times as many vehicles per Mwh and far more irregular usage, all of which calls for more planning, more complicated contracts, and more real-time communication with the chargers.
  • A market precedent. Utility bean-counters are as much control freaks as the engineers. If they can’t own all the distributed generation and storage resources, at least they want to control them completely. Regulated utilities do not want a transparent arm’s-length market for V2G, let alone energy democracy.
  • Goodwill in rural counties where opposition to Dominion’s planned natural gas pipelines is strong.

3. With this, Dominion are underlining their detachment from the flailing efforts of the Koch machine to halt the EV revolution. Electric utilities like electric vehicles: additional demand against a static background, and most of it off-peak. In the battle of the lobbyists, they outgun the EV-haters easily.

4. Dominion won’t stop here. They need to explore in practice the more complicated cases, with potentially larger markets. They may well buy a small fleet of electric service vehicles (pickups, light trucks, specialist equipment like cherrypickers) for their own needs. They may subsidise EV purchases by employees on the same basis as the school buses.

5. Dominion are pretty representative of the American regulated monopoly utility model. The superior rival Littlewood scheme of a monopoly grid split from competing generators applies in full only in Texas, and partially in California and New York, but the ancien régime still applies in many other states Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and of course the TVA. The utility incumbents in these states have similar incentives to Dominion, so we may well see me-too school bus schemes springing up all over the place.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web