Electric vehicles as the next smartphone

In 2006 a cell phone was portable phone that could send text messages. It was convenient but not transformative. No one seriously thought about dropping their landlines.

And then the iPhone arrived. Almost overnight consumers began to use it like their computer. They emailed, took pictures and sent them to their friends, then searched the web, then played complex games and watched videos. Social media exploded and multiple means of communicating and sharing proliferated. Landlines (and cable) started to disappear, and personal computer sales slowed. (And as a funny side effect, the younger generation seemed to quit talking on the phone.) The cell phone went from a means of one-on-one communication to a multi-faceted electronic tool that has become our pocket computer.

The U.S. population owning a smartphone has gone from 35% to 85% in the last decade. We could achieve similar penetration rates for electric vehicles (EVs) if we rethink and repackage how we market EVs to become our indispensable “energy management tool.” EVs can offer much more than conventional cars and we need to facilitate and market these advantages to sell them much faster.

EV pickups with spectacular features are about to be offered. These EVs may be a game changer for a different reason than what those focused on transportation policy think of–they offer households the opportunity for near complete energy independence. These pick ups have both enough storage capacity to power a house for several days and are designed to supply power to many other uses, not just driving. Combined with solar panels installed both at home and in business lots, the trucks can carry energy back and forth between locations. This has an added benefit of increasing reliability (local distribution outages are 15 times more likely than system levels ones) and resilience in the face of increasing extreme events.

This all can happen because cars are parked 90-95% of the time. That offers power source reliability in the same range as conventional generation, and the dispersion created by a portfolio of smaller sources further enhances that availability. Another important fact is that the total power capacity for autos on California’s road is over 2,000 gigawatts. Compared to California’s peak load of about 63 gigawatts, this is more than 30 times more capacity than we need. If we simply get to 20% penetration of EVs of which half have interconnective control abilities, we’ll have three times more capacity than we would need to meet our highest demands. There are other energy management issues, but solving them are feasible when we realize there will not be a real physical constraint.

Further, used EV batteries can be used as stationary storage, either in home or at renewable generation to mitigate transmission investments. EVs can transport energy between work and home from solar panels.

The difference between these EVs and the current models is akin to the difference between flip phones and smart phones. One is a single function device and the we use the latter to manage our lives. The marketing of EVs should shift course to emphasize these added benefits that are not possible with a conventional vehicle. The barriers are not technological, but only regulatory (from battery warranties and utility interconnection rules).

As part of this EV marketing focus, automakers should follow two strategies, both drawn from smart phones. The first is that EV pick ups should be leased as a means of keeping model features current. It facilitates rolling out industry standards quickly (like installing the latest Android update) and adding other yet-more attractive features. It also allows for more environmentally-friendly disposal of obsolete EVs. Materials can be more easily recycled and batteries no longer usable for driving (generally below 70% capacity) can be repurposed for stand-alone storage.

The second is to offer add on services. Smart phone companies have media streaming, data management and all sorts of other features beyond simple communication. Automakers can offer demand management to lower, or even eliminate, utility bills and appliance and space conditioning management placed onboard so a homeowner need not install a separate system that is not easily updated.

12 thoughts on “Electric vehicles as the next smartphone

  1. Lee Kasten

    I definitely imagine parking lots with EV chargers. I don’t think all of them need to be self sustaining but I think this is a good set up in many cases.

    Part of me thinks why not have that? The other part of me thinks why have that? I lean slightly towards having solar on parking lots but only slightly. I’m totally willing to change my mind but there’s this continuous battle in my mind with balancing. In general I think it’s probably cheaper to import power but there are other inputs into the problem which make me second guess. Are you sure or do you debate this yourself?

    I live in Vancouver BC which is rapidly developing upwards. I live downtown but I work in the burbs. All of my surroundings are moving upwards These high density developments cannot be solar powered. The argument over parking lots vanishes when you look at powering a city.

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    1. Richard McCann Post author

      You’re problem is that Vancouver is too ideal! ;^) I grew up in Seattle and Vancouver has always been more dense than even Seattle, which is the second densest city on the U.S. West Coast. For the rest of us living in some form of the urban sprawl, parking lots will be part of the landscape for a very long time, as will be single-occupancy commuting to work (although “commuting to work” may be much less significant after the pandemic–that’s the only part causes me to doubt this potential solution.) One of the big advantage of solar panels is that they can provide instant parking lot shade, whereas planting trees takes decades and unfortunately hasn’t been very successful so far. I’m on a city committee looking at this very issue right now. In addition, the 200-500 kW project costs rival that of grid scale when transmission cost is added in. In California with distribution outages, it could be possible to install storage that isolates a microgrid, perhaps even using the EVs that are plugged in (not next year, but soon.)

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  2. Lee Kasten

    I thought we were going to disagree more on the Haas blog but I was pleasantly surprise to find out we share a lot of common ground. I’ve met very few people who admit that 5% of annual load will probably need to be covered by a storable fuel. Fewer still understand this fuel doesn’t need to be hydrogen or dedicated energy crops but could instead come from waste streams. Over time I’ve come to the opinion that we need to abate the emissions from waste streams anyways so why not extract some value in the process. When it comes to deploying these abatement technologies I don’t see a lot of value in waiting because the technologies are mature.

    As I mentions on the blog the modeling of electrification is still somewhat poorly understood when it comes to both heating (medium to very poorly I would say) and transportation (somewhat less poorly is my general feeling). The DOE will be releasing a new dataset in October that breaks down household and commercial energy usage in far more detail than anything we’ve seen before. The dataset is 10 TB which means I’m going to need to buy some more hard-drives. I may get my hands on a pre-release but I’m happy to wait.

    But yes, I’m all in favor of closely examining the ability of EVs to support the grid. The idea I have in my head (not original) is perhaps best understood by thinking about the relationship between nuclear plants and pumped hydro plants. Nukes, as you know, run flat out. Both Japan and South Korea have a lot of nukes as well as a lot of pumped hydro to balance said nukes. At night the pumped hydro charges up on excess nuclear power and this power is released during the day to meet mid-merit and peak load. As a side note this also happens with coal. People jump to thinking that storage is the solution to all that ails RE but I tend to think storage works a lot better with a resource like coal or nuclear power.

    People imagine something similar happening with grid storage and renewables. Sure it could work but the more interesting strategy involves the interaction between storage (EVs in particular) and the gas backup assets we need during missing power events. The basic idea here is that on a daily basis the Peak load is roughly twice as high as the Trough load. Imagine a day with very low production – by very low I mean 50 to 75% of the load in the day isn’t being met by RE production. The modeling I’ve done suggests this would be a relatively normal event in an ultra-high RE grid – approximately 20 days a year. This is due synoptic scale weather events which produce very poor wind power conditions over very large areas. This is where the gas backup comes in.

    Imagine the gas backup being run at 100% on these missing power days. At night when the load troughs the excess power is diverted into EVs. During the day the EVs support the mid-merit and peak load. It seems to me you may already be seeing this but I thought I’d share.

    This gas power would cost quite a bit but if you can squeeze the requirements down to 5% it seems manageable. I tend to pencil in 15 $/mmbtu for the manufactured gas and $40/kW-year in capacity costs just to get a feel for the costs of the backup capacity. These rough numbers allow you to estimate the savings which could be achieved by using EVs to reduce the amount of gas backup you need – in particular the X GW of gas that’s only used 1 or 2 or 3% of the time. These calculations are above my pay grade but this is how I imagine the problem.

    I have roughly estimated the value of EVs being used in this way as $100 to $200 a year. This isn’t a huge number but it’s big enough to make things interesting. You could also use the EVs for ancillary services but these markets are quite shallow so I don’t see much potential there.

    I’d be curious to hear what you think of my rough estimate and what over quantifiable value streams you see.

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    1. Richard McCann Post author

      I calculate for California that a 100% EV fleet would produce 30 times the peak capacity that we currently use. LDVs are parked about 95% of the time. If we assume that we have parking lot solar shades to facilitate charging for most of the fleet most of the time, we might assume that 50% are connected. That implies that we need only 7% of the battery capacity for any single EV in a grid connected scenario. Giving up that amount of capacity has a de minimis impact on either battery life or range, so for all practical purposes that storage is free. That’s a good reason to believe that grid-scale storage may go the way of cordless landline phones–unneeded. That also means that we probably will get to the point that we may need very little gas back up.

      That said, I think the gas capacity will cost closer to $100/kW-yr, but the fuel cost will be $10/MMBtu or less. I suspect that this comes out largely as a wash. I’ve seen modeling from LBNL/NREL using numbers in the ballpark of either of our estimates and it shows probable savings with 5% from combustion.

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    2. Richard McCann Post author

      On our disagreement, I think its about where the grid might evolve, especially if it atomizes. I see the biggest reliability problems out in the distribution system and climate extremes have exacerbated that. And since I’m an economist, I get to assume that we have a can opener on the desert island… ;^)

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      1. Lee Kasten

        What does atomize mean? Do you mean localization?

        I enjoy talking to an economist because because I have a similar imagination.

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    1. Lee Kasten

      It’s a good project but I don’t think most charging will continue to occur at night – certainly not 80%. For now it’s a good approach but looking further out I think we’ll need more balance between daytime chargers and nighttime charger.

      If you imagine a 95% RE grid it will be dominated by wind and solar. As mentioned on the Haas blog something like 60% solar and 30% wind are good placeholder guesses. In this type of grid wind will carry a lot of extra unique load in the winter due to heating and EVs. If you own an EV you know that the range of your vehicle is considerably less in the winter because of lower temperatures, denser air, running heaters, chemistry and such. This means the charging needs of EVs will be somewhat higher in the winter (25 to 33% is a placeholder guess based on personal experience). We need to make sure we don’t put all this load on wind which preferentially blows at night. Batteries will be large enough that we’ll have a great deal of flexibility.

      When I put on my imagination cap I think of EVs eventually driving themselves to the E-Station charge up. This would allow a great deal more centralization of charging assets next to substations. This idea is admittedly a little too sci-fi for most. I was one of the first people at work to have an EV. We had 5 charging spots but only 2 of them would be occupied on a regular day. Ha… That’s changed… Now we all belong to an email group and we go out at noon to switch parking spots. This was pre-COVID mind you.

      It would be wonderful if the EVs could do this themselves. Again, a little too sci-fi for most but it seems like a baby step between EVs driving themselves to substations.

      My general point is that we should be imagining more of a split between daytime and nighttime charging. This doesn’t necessarily apply today so I’d agree nighttime charging infrastructure deserves priority.

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      1. Richard McCann Post author

        In my vision, business parking lots all have solar panel shades with EV charging booths that integrate EV storage. That would facilitate more daytime charging.

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