2013 Chevy Volt, OnStar, Is Smart-Grid Ready: The Utilities Aren’t

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Onstar Hopes To Make Charging Chevrolet Volts Greener

Onstar Hopes To Make Charging Chevrolet Volts Greener

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Imagine a future where plug-in cars not only know when the cheapest time to charge is, but also work in concert with utility companies to recharge when it is greenest or when grid power demand is the lowest.

For years, automakers, charging station manufacturers, utility companies and even the U.S. military have been working to make that a reality, but as yet smart grid technology isn’t a reality for the average U.S. electric car driver. 

The reason, according to General Motors, is simple: utility companies just aren’t ready yet. 

Concept already proven

Earlier this year, GM demonstrated its own smart-grid software as part of a joint project with Google and PJM, an independent, regional transmission organization (RTO) responsible for the upkeep, wholesale, and transmission of electricity using the high-voltage utility grid.

2013 Chevrolet Volt

2013 Chevrolet Volt

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Using data provided by PJM, GM was able to control when the Google fleet of 25 Chevrolet Volts charged using its OnStar software.

“We took a renewable energy signal that PJM has created,” explained Paul Pebbles, Business Service Manager for Fleet - Volt at OnStar.  “We were able to show, with a high level of confidence, that we could actually control the charging of the Volts to match that renewable energy signal.” 

Car is ready, utilities aren’t

When asked if any of the smart grid features it tested in the project would make it into the 2014 Volt, Pebbles was brutally honest. 

“The vehicle is ready. OnStar is ready,” he said. “We’re working to get the utilities and some of the energy companies to sign up and be part of this from more than just a demonstration perspective.”

A long, complicated process

While GM reports making good progress from initial discussions with utility companies, the reality of implementing smart grid technology takes a long time. 

As Pebbles explained, after an initial recognition of the technology, utility companies have to work with the public utility commission to gain approval for a smart grid pilot project. 

After the successful end of a pilot project, the utility company must then carry out a twelve-month test with paying customers, followed by a further wait of between 6 to 8 months before it can be offered as a permanent service to customers. 

The process is further complicated by the 3,500 or so public and private utility companies in the U.S. and Canada. 

Better Place is different

Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place charge point in apartment bldg [photo: Brian of London]

Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place charge point in apartment bldg [photo: Brian of London]

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The astute reader will note that some of these smart-grid features are already in place in Israel, operating as part of Better Place’s nationwide electric car network. 

That’s because of two reasons. 

First, Israel is a relatively small nation. 

Second, Israel only has one main utility company, making the implementation of smart grid technology far simpler.

It’s coming...slowly

The message from GM is clear: it wants to build future versions of the Chevrolet Volt -- and any future all-electric plug-in cars -- with smart grid technology built into the OnStar system. 

And because most of the technology needed is software-based rather than hardware based, GM can roll out the technology as utility companies add smart grid capabilities.

At some point in the future, GM says, owners of plug-in cars with domestic photovoltaic solar panels may even be able to set up a charging behavior that only recharges their car when excess solar power is being generated.

How long it takes for those features to be offered however depends on one thing: how quickly U.S. utility companies can implement smart grid technology. 


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Comments (15)
  1. Interesting technology because it does not require a new meter for the house. Unfortunately, it only controls the charging time (demand-response) and does not have the ability to put power back on the grid. Still it is quite useful.

  2. John, do you see using current car battery technology for grid balancing as being a smart economic choice for a battery owner? I sure don't think any Leaf owners would want their batteries being cycled for any non-driving use.

  3. have to agree. battery cycling for ANY reason is detrimental to the driver. the limited range, limited cycle life, etc. is the greatest sticking point now. besides we are a long way from having the critical mass to even begin to consider the option. maybe by then, the battery pack replacement pipeline will be mature enough that 2 way electron flow could be a real option

  4. The plan is to only cycle a few percentage points of the battery's capacity. This will not have any impact on its life.

    Sure, if the plan was to 80% discharge your EV battery, once a day, battery life would be shortened. But no one is proposing that.

  5. Current pesky batteries put a damper on good ideas. It seems the benefit of this scheme is to be able to utilize more renewable power without costly moderation of existing generating sources. The costs however will be on the battery owner that may end up having high SOC for long periods of time vs. timed charging planned to end just before expected use.

  6. Power companies have been slow to embrace the new technology suh as Plugin EVs... That is the major problem. For some reason, they have no interest in competing against oil companies...

  7. The bottleneck is with public utility commissions in approving alternative power delivery methods. Most states ban resale of power, or selling by the the kW. This forces pubic charge stations to use an hourly meter regardless of amount of electric power received.

    A few utilities offer tiered rates with substantial discounts for overnight usage. Most electric vehicles (EVs) are able to take advantage by using a delayed-start charging time. This usually requires a dedicated electric meter. If EVs could report charge usage (times) to utilities directly, then an extra meter wouldn't be needed for a discount.

  8. A constraint with current EVs is being able set a partial level (e.g. 45%) to charge during peak times, then automatically top up (e.g. 80% level) during off peak hour at lower rates. This would satisfy keeping enough charge for local errands, and save on charging for longer commutes.

  9. That is a really good suggestion.

  10. I think some charger system can be controlled remotely to lower the power draw.

    That is why cars like the Volt has more benefit. If the power grid is out due to whatever reason, the Volt can still function on gas. If the gas stations have gas shortage, then it can depend on grid for short commute.

    Well, if both of them are out, we are in big doo doo...

  11. Great article. Smart grids are great in theory but so far the only large user of power that it makes sense to delay use of is the EV. Dishwashers and laundry machines are never going to make much difference. Overnight storage of hot water has some benefit.

    No, cars are the biggie. I'm glad Nikki noted that Better Place have already deployed. Not only does it take a technical solution but the agreement with the customer which they have too. In practice it means that, unless I request immediate power, it may take a few hours for charging to start. I just don't care and because battery life isn't my issue, I always start with 100%.

  12. Many consumers report that after signing up for time of use plans, they utilize the "smart meter between their ears" and delay dish washing and laundering until off-peak hours.

  13. I agree, I did that in the UK fairly infrequently and where my hot water was all overnight storage.

    But perhaps 2 kWh's of dishwashing or laundry are never going to amount to much even across a whole population. However putting 15 to 20 kWh back into cars soon adds up to a major use of electricity. It's basically 10 times more than dishwashing and laundry will ever be.

    And I can't think of anything else I use domestic energy for that can be time delayed! I need A/C when I'm up and it's hot, not 7 hours later! Lights, same, refrigeration, constant (in fact I don't open the door at night). All other things are non-deferrable.

  14. Laundry/Dryer can be delayed with proper planning. :)

  15. Our utility in SE Pennsylvania, PECO, has some egg on their face in this area. They have begun a big rollout of Smart Meters. Well, some of them are overheating and catching on fire. Not good since they're attached to peoples' homes. They've stopped rollout and are looking at it.

    Huh - I wonder how California and other places did it? PECO received $200M to do this from DoE. Another big dump of money that will in the end save PECO a few dozen $thousand dollars a year. That is the computed value of the effect of smart meters once rolled out - a few hundred thousand kWh saved per year (per PECO) by cycling A.C. off on 15-minute cycles throughout the region and no real "benefit" to me.

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