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Smart cars meet the smart grid: getting Ontario's infrastructure ready for electric vehicles

Could plugging in your brand new electric vehicle plunge your neighbourhood into darkness?

It's unlikely. But a flurry of pilot projects in Ontario now are trying to determine how the rollout of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) will affect the province's electricity distribution systems and how new smart grid technology can make EV adoption easier. With a McMaster University report predicting 500,000 plug-in vehicles on Canada's roads by 2018 and Ontario aiming to have one in 20 vehicles powered with electricity by 2020, electricity companies don't want to find themselves scrambling from blackout to blackout.

As key players are figuring out how to roll out charging stations, how EV drivers will be billed for charging and maintenance and what kind of infrastructure upgrades will be needed, they're also getting to know each other. The mainstream introduction of EVs is the first time that electric utilities, automobile manufacturers, telecommunications companies, technology companies and various levels of governments have had to sit around the same table. EVs are adding an interesting twist to the growth of Ontario's smart grid, which is also a work in progress. Providing utilities and users with more detailed information about how, when and where electricity is used, the smart grid can be as helpful in transportation policy as it is in determining when it's cheapest to run the dishwasher.

"This is really an emerging marketplace," says Richard Wunderlich, director of smart grid initiatives at Siemens Canada Limited. "The whole electric transportation paradigm is being investigated."

A member of the Durham Strategic Energy Alliance (DSEA), Seimens is participating in a pilot project aimed at better understanding how the smart grid can help EV drivers, testing data collection systems, evaluating the grid impact of charging electric vehicles and testing the Li-ion batteries that are the gas tanks of EVs. Over the next few months, DSEA will install five charging stations on the premises of participating companies. Using a souped-up version of commercially available stations that Seimens is already producing for international markets, the project will collect more information than conventional charging stations.

One of the key dilemmas is what will happen to the grid if many people in the same area are charging their vehicles at the same time. A low-level charge only takes as much energy as doing a load of laundry, but would take a several hours. EVs will also be capable of rapid charging, known as Level 2 and Level 3 charging, which is the equivalent of adding a whole household to the grid. Making the problem even trickier is the expectation that there will be a keeping-up-with-the-Jones effect in the early years of EVs. Early adopters will show off their EV to neighbours who rush out to buy their own EV, causing clustering in certain neighbourhoods.

"One EV in a neighbourhood is not a problem, but two or three might require an upgrade to the transformers, especially in urban areas where the infrastructure isn't up-to-date," says Don Tench, director of market assessment and compliance for Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), which maintains the relationship between electricity generators, transmitters and retailers in Ontario.

A report this spring by the Ontario Smart Grid Forum recommended that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation  track the registration of electric vehicles, as well as the installation of Level 2 and higher charging stations, a task which would usually be performed by licensed electricians. That information could be plugged into a map so electricity providers can upgrade areas where EVs are taking off.

"Automobile manufacturers won't be able to meet demand for about five years, so that really gives us a two- to three-year window of opportunity to seamlessly integrate EVs into the system," says Tench.

Ontario's existing smart grid technology allows households to get information on when they're using electricity, so they can avoid energy consumption during peak hours. But as more smart grid functionality becomes possible, Tench says there will be more applications for EVs. As a result, more businesses will be able to provide value-added services. For example, if a driver's battery is getting low, a feedback system could provide information on where the nearest unused charging station is and, calculating driving speed and distance, reserve the station for an appropriate length of time, starting at the vehicle's estimated time of arrival. These services may be provided by a single company or several, by existing players or brand new ones.

"I think payment will be a minor point," says Wunderlich. "In today's terms, the cost of the charge is negligible. You're really paying for the infrastructure, the access, the other services." Pay-per-kilowatt-used billing may not be as popular as subscription-based billing that's paid annually or monthly and covers a wider range of services. Although the Durham pilot project won't be charging users, it will use swipe-card technology to track their usage patterns, which will help the partners determine what a "typical charge" looks like. Wunderlich predicts it will vary from region to region.

"It will depend on the terrain—hilly will be different from flat. It will depend on the temperature. Extreme cold and extreme heat have an effect on battery life and, ironically, in Ontario, we have both," says Wunderlich.

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