Electric vehicles

Fleets of electric buses, trucks, vans, and cars might soon help bolster the grid

Fleet owners can use vehicle-to-grid charging to turn their cars into networks of large batteries during idle times.
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Amazon

· 5 min read

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging is still in its early days, but electrified fleets could soon provide the first opportunities to prove its significance.

“That’s where a lot of vehicle-to-grid has strong application—in fleet environments,” Brendan Jones, president of Blink Charging, told Emerging Tech Brew.

Typically, when we think of EV charging, we think about people pulling electrons into their EVs, but electric buses or vans that sit idle for predictable periods of time throughout the day could be used as networks of large batteries to support the power grid. And a lot of vehicles may fit the bill: More than 8 million trucks and automobiles in the US qualified as part of a fleet in 2020, according to the Department of Transportation.

The lower total cost of ownership over the lifetime of EVs could be enough to convince many fleet operators—from public transit to logistics companies—to make the switch from internal combustion engines. Very few of these buses, trucks, and vans have made it to the roads so far, but that could change rapidly in the next few years.

“When it comes to the medium- and heavy-duty segments, whether those are vans or small trucks or bigger trucks, those are taking a little longer right now, because vehicle availability has been limited,” Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer at charging company EVgo, told Emerging Tech Brew. “But I think this next 12 to 24 months is a really big deal.”

Amazon is awaiting the first of the 100,000 delivery vans Rivian is building for the company. UPS ordered 10,000 vans from Arrival, an EV startup in the UK. GM is delivering its first electric delivery vans to FedEx ahead of the holiday season, and Ford’s first electric E-Transit vans rolled off the production line earlier this month.

And the enthusiasm goes beyond the logistics sector. President Biden wants to electrify the entire federal fleet—about 645,000 vehicles—and rental-car companies are also looking to increase the number of EVs in their inventories. Hertz announced in October that it would buy 100,000 cars from Tesla.

Fleet-to-grid

While it’s not yet clear how fast fleet owners can electrify a significant share of their fleets, other stakeholders are already thinking about the V2G potential of the EV batteries.

Electric school buses are a promising example, according to Micah Kotch, managing director at startup accelerator URBAN-X. The federal infrastructure bill signed into law last month provides $2.5 billion for electric buses—enough money for about 11,000 electric buses.

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“They generally are only in use a few hours a day when school is in session, and they’re also parked during the summer months for the most part when demand is high,” he told Emerging Tech Brew.

This summer, National Grid worked with EV maker Proterra and fleet management company Highland Electric Fleets to use an electric school bus for power when energy demand was at its highest in Beverly, Massachusetts. Over the course of 30 peak times during the summer, the bus discharged nearly three megawatt-hours of electricity stored in its battery—enough to power about 100 American households for one day.

image of a school bus plugged in to give energy back to the grid

Proterra

The school bus program illustrated the cooperation required to turn EV fleets into a resource for the power grid.

“Utilities are critical partners in this equation,” Levy said.

Some utilities are providing fleet advisory services programs, says Stacy Noblet, senior director of transportation electrification at global advisory firm ICF.

“These programs are providing the utility an opportunity to really sit down and have a conversation with the fleet manager, and help educate them,” she told Emerging Tech Brew.

There’s also an opportunity for companies that can provide fleet management services to accelerate the transition. Inspiration Mobility—a startup that plans to work with fleet owners to finance new EVs, supply and run charging infrastructure, and collaborate with energy companies on efficient electricity usage—raised $200 million in initial capital in November.

Looking ahead...

Beyond the incentive of improving energy resilience, fleet owners could actually make money by using V2G technology. If EV fleet owners charge when demand is lower and electricity costs less, store that energy in the fleet’s batteries, and then send it back to the grid during peak periods when demand and cost for power are higher, fleet owners should be able to turn a profit.

But before fleet owners can give any energy back to the grid, they have to make sure the proper charging infrastructure is in place. Education and planning before the first EV even arrives is essential for owners to manage fleet electrification successfully, Levy said.

“It’s not as simple as buy the car and then put in charging, which is what a lot of people think,” he said. “It’s plan your fleet with the cars and the charging and the use case in mind. Design the charging before you even take delivery of your fleet, and then have the ability to expand modularly and learn and build as the technology shifts.”

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