Preventing Future Shock: Rethinking the Power Grid to Charge the City of Tomorrow

By Mike Tinskey, Ford Global Director, Connected Vehicle & Emerging Services

In the City of Tomorrow, new technology is certain to play an even larger role in powering our daily lives, but the question is, are we ready for it?

Electricity is a key example. It will transform transportation, challenging gasoline as the major source of transportation fuel. Electrified, self-driving cars are likely to haul many passengers who pay for individual rides, as shared commutes continue to gain traction versus owning a personal vehicle. And more electric vehicles will plug in to the grid to accommodate these changing habits.

While we are not in the utility business, we understand that reliable, clean energy is critical to the success of cities around the world. As we invest $4.5 billion into electrified vehicle solutions to introduce 13 new electrified vehicles in the next five years, it is critical that we engage in planning to efficiently power these cars, trucks and SUVs.

Energy grids are already sized for peak power, not leaving much capacity for the added strain of plug-in vehicles. We also know from working with utilities that most of the infrastructure was built with past generations in mind, has aged and is now in need of significant investment to prevent potentially catastrophic scenarios as America’s energy use grows.

In the meantime, there are ways to help the current system. Energy companies across the U.S. have installed 70 million smart meters, covering 55 percent of residential households, and installations are projected to reach 90 million by 2020, according to the Edison Foundation’s Institute for Electric Innovation. This allows the grid to understand what is happening across its network at the point of consumption.

At Ford, we know that we can charge millions of vehicles during nighttime hours without significant investment to the current electric grid infrastructure. That is why we have developed technology like MyFord Mobile, an app to help our EV customers charge efficiently and seamlessly when grid payload is lower, potentially saving both energy for the grid and money.

While charging nightly makes sense for the owner of a personal electric vehicle, it is not necessarily a great solution for a theoretical shared electric vehicle. Sharing vehicles can allow for optimization; in other words, the vehicles spend more time on the road and less time in parking spaces. That means they can’t, for instance, rely solely on night time charging.

With the added strain of millions of electrified vehicles, how will the energy grid keep up? The short answer is — right now — that it might not.

We are reaching an inflection point where innovation to the grid needs to occur to safely and sustainably power tomorrow’s businesses and communities. Thankfully, many utilities, governments, business and other stakeholders are already working hard to improve the grid to meet future demands.

One area of focus that should be familiar to many is clean energy. Renewable, locally-produced energy, in the form of solar or wind power, increasingly will need to power most of our regular activities as the grid moves from a centralized model to a decentralized one.

As the nature of energy generation changes, transmission and distribution grids will deploy new tools to keep up with changing patterns of demand and increase their reliability. Coal or nuclear plants, for example, store their energy as fuel that they can burn on demand. Conversely, most renewable power is only available when the wind blows or the sun shines, which isn’t always when the energy is needed most.

This brings us to another area of focus: what we do with clean energy that we produce. This is also known as energy storage. Progress in this area is a major hurdle.

Renewables by nature are intermittent, and their intermittency is one of the biggest challenges to grid operators around the world. Fortunately, electric vehicles could one day help mitigate storage issues.

We are working with other companies to research energy storage solutions that could help the grid by providing clean energy from the vehicle to the grid during peak consumption hours.

When homes and vehicles share a common “fuel” called electricity, there will be plenty of opportunity for optimization that can happen, especially since the vehicle charging time is discretionary. But to do so effectively requires collaboration among utilities, businesses, technology solution providers and consumers. This is an area Ford has been active in and will continue to prioritize as we work to optimize the consumer experience around an “electric lifestyle.”

In addition to home renewables, smart charging and smart appliances, we are researching the ability to store energy within the home after it is captured by solar panels — and whether future electric vehicles could be charged via solar technology.

Tomorrow’s city will be far different from yesterday’s. Developing a grid that can keep pace with that change will be a challenge — but it’s one we must address. To power our lives, the electrical grid of the future will need to adapt to changes in supply and demand to ensure secure and sustainable energy. This is one development we can’t afford to be shocked by.