Ahead of their time
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape and courtesy of Nuvve Corporation March 22, 2021
UD researchers developed today’s vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology in the 1990s
If you keep up with the news headlines, it’s easy to see that change is in the air when it comes to energy and transportation.
Automaker General Motors in January announced that it will manufacture and sell only electric vehicles by 2035. Massachusetts has set a goal of requiring all cars sold in the state that same year to be electric. Several European countries have said they will quit making internal combustion engine vehicles by 2025.
It’s a seismic shift with the potential to affect many parts of the economy.
Meanwhile, Nuvve Corporation, owner of the revolutionary vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology invented and developed at the University of Delaware, has reached its own milestone. Nuvve will become a publicly traded company on Tuesday, March 23, after formally merging with Newborn Acquisition Group to accelerate global commercialization of the V2G technology.
V2G technology enables electric car batteries to draw energy from and discharge energy back to the electric grid. Linked together, multiple electric vehicle (EV) batteries can form a virtual power plant that can safely store and supply power to the electrical grid. In this way, the car can store energy when the grid has too much and then return it to help the grid balance demands for electricity when it is needed, all with zero emissions and minimal impact on the planet.
It’s an innovative idea that grew out of federally funded research by V2G pioneer Willett Kempton and others at UD in the late 1990s. Nuvve gained exclusive rights to patents on the technology in 2016.
“Nuvve going public is a recognition by the investment community that there is value to this idea and that it has commercial viability,” said Kempton, a professor in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.
Kempton recognized the potential of V2G 25 years ago — in 1996 — and became further intrigued with the idea of using electric vehicle batteries to help balance the grid as power from intermittent clean energy sources, such as solar and wind, came online. He worked with a team of UD researchers and students to develop the electric V2G concept, including the software, hardware and the policies to participate in power markets.
“Here is somebody, Willett, who in the 1990s forecast and put together the technology that right now is changing the automobile industry,” said David Weir, director of UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. “I can’t think of anything that more epitomizes what federal funding for great ideas can do.”
UD launched the world’s first revenue-generating V2G project at the University’s main campus in Newark, Delaware, in 2013. Since then, demonstration projects in multiple countries have shown that V2G can make real contributions to balance electricity supply and demand, and UD researchers have continued to develop the technology.
In 2019, Delaware became the first state in the nation with a law enabling everyday citizens with electric vehicles with AC charging stations to connect and provide services to the electric grid, thanks to efforts by Kempton and UD doctoral candidate Sara Parkison.
UDaily spoke with Willett Kempton and Sara Parkison for a look back at where the V2G technology all started and — more importantly — how UD researchers involved with the project continue to break new ground in policy, performance and possible applications for clean energy transportation moving forward.
Q: What sparked the original idea for the vehicle-to-grid technology in the early 1990s?
Kempton: Solar energy provides a lot of electricity in the middle of the day, but we also need electricity in the late afternoon and evening between 3-8 p.m., when people come home, cook dinner, etc. So, the question was how can you take a little of that extra daytime energy and move it to later in the day. It’s an easy storage problem because you just have to find a place to store that electricity until you can discharge it. Batteries are great for that.
I started thinking about where we have batteries. There are emergency lights in buildings, but those batteries are too small. There are backup batteries for computer systems, but computers can fail so we want those to be available at all times. Then I went to an electric vehicle conference and thought, wait a minute … this is a huge battery, 50 times bigger than anything we’ve been thinking about. Given the number of cars, even if they are driving to work 20 minutes out of the day, we’ll have a huge number of batteries available at any one time of day. That was the original idea.
Q: Looking back — did you dream at the beginning that V2G would go this far?
Kempton: I’m an optimist, actually, and I thought it would go this far. In fact, I was so foolish as to think it would happen much faster. I didn’t understand enough then about permitting of resources and the power grid markets and the many layers associated with that, which take time. I remember sitting in David Weir’s office in UD’s Hullihen Hall and saying, ‘This is the lowest-cost way to do things that are today a $3 billion a year market — this could be a very big item.’ I’m sure David was thinking, ‘This guy is crazy, but maybe there’s something to it and we’ll look into it.’
Q: What has kept you passionate about continuing this work over the years
Kempton: You have to realize there was and is an entire team of UD researchers involved in this project. But what kept me going? Seeing the Arctic melting, really. We tell politicians that global warming is bad, and we need to do something, but they don’t necessarily know what to do. We need solutions and one layer of this is to find technologies that work.
Solar and wind are cheaper now than burning natural gas in most areas, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment. But we still have to deal with the intermittency issue of renewable energy resources when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. This is where batteries can help. Our innovation is that we don’t need to buy batteries for all of this — as solar and wind are being built, EVs are an increasing fraction of the automotive fleet. For a fraction of the cost of batteries, we can add a few controls and use those batteries when they are not on the road.
Q: How are UD researchers continuing to forge new ground today in the electric vehicle space, now that the technology is gaining traction?
Kempton: UD is still driving forward to overcome the remaining barriers in policy and technology for electric vehicles. We are leading work to develop and write standards for new V2G communications between the charging station and the car, and to design and test V2G technologies for much lower cost. We are developing policies to access large, high-value markets to allow distributed energy resources like electric vehicles to perform grid services in more locations. UD researchers continue to do research and development for Nuvve, but they also are doing other work, demonstration projects, and playing a role in pushing things forward that no one has done before.
Q: Tell me more about the technology developments occurring at UD.
Kempton: UD is expanding its strength in electric vehicles and V2G into a broader set of problems around electrification. We have created the Transport Electrification Center, a multi-college project led by Rodney McGee, a UD research engineer (and recent UD doctoral graduate) in electrical and computer engineering. The center’s broader mission is the electrification of light-duty vehicle fleets, such as cars, and heavy-duty vehicle fleets, such as trucks and buses. Vehicle electrification will be a massive shift in one of industrialized society’s major industries. It’s the same tires and road surfaces that people will be driving on, but the prime mover — the vehicle and the entire fueling infrastructure — is different. It’s not like an auto manufacturer can just order that stuff out of a catalog. It is all being developed and designed, as are the safety standards and the laws about how it can be used. UD’s Transport Electrification Center is working on all of those things.
Q: What about policy around V2G — does UD continue to lead there, too?
Parkison: One thing that is often overlooked when discussing V2G is inventing new ways of thinking about how novel resources can interconnect into the electrical grid. Proof-of-concept technical projects show how the technology is evolving and demonstrate how to operate it, but they typically don’t translate into the policy changes needed to allow a decentralized resource (EVs) to be adapted into today’s centralized system and framework. So, policy innovations are an additional major effort on our part, sometimes integrated with those technical demonstrations.
For example, connecting a battery fixed inside a single building is very different from connecting a moving vehicle that parks and charges in different places. It has different technical characteristics, stakeholders and parties involved in the interconnection process. No one has written out how exactly all of these people, entities and vehicles will come together. And not all players are excited about rewriting the rulebook on this. UD is having these discussions in Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Europe … and working on inventing policy, defining what that framework could and should look like.
Kempton: What Sara is talking about is dealing with layers of the electric regulatory system. There are utilities like you pay each month for your electricity, but there also are the state, regional grid and federal regulatory layers. We are working at all of these levels. It’s like trench warfare, advancing a few tens of meters at a time, trying to push this forward in 50 states.
Q: How does it feel to work on this forward edge?
Parkison: It’s wonderfully challenging. Last fall, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a new rule, Order 2222, requiring that distributed resources be allowed to interconnect with the electric grid to provide grid services and earn revenue in higher-value wholesale markets. UD contributed Order language to include grid-connected electric vehicles in these types of resources, resulting in what is now a federally recognized definition of distributed energy resources. This starts to remove unjust and unreasonable barriers that hamper V2G participation in wholesale energy markets in many states at once. It is a significant step forward.