Can EV Owners Help Pump Power Back to the Grid?

A CU Denver-led study will look at how two-way charging can aid utility companies and neighborhoods, especially during power outages 

October 9, 2023

The impacts of climate change and aging energy infrastructure have been put on full display in recent headlines: Maui’s wildfire was among the deadliest in U.S. history, Hurricane Idalia caused up to $20 billion in damage, and many Texas cities have experienced frequent power outages and their hottest summers on record. Many experts agree that the current power grid infrastructure is not sustainable. A new CU Denver-led study is exploring the potential benefits of incorporating electric vehicles into the grid to better meet modern energy needs. 

Similar to how residents of solar-powered homes can generate extra electricity and sell it back to utility companies, such a vast “bidirectional charging” network could be established for EV owners to transfer power back to the grid. This Vehicle-Grid Integration (VGI) system could be especially effective during power outages and natural disasters when large populations need power immediately. 

“In those situations, it’s cheaper for the utility company to gain power quickly and locally,” said the study’s lead principal investigator Lynne Kiesling, an economist and research professor with CU Denver’s College of Engineering, Design & Computing. “You don’t have to deal with power line losses because the longer the distance you transmit electricity, you lose some of it. There’s also an environmental benefit because a utility [company] doesn’t have to fire up a gas or coal plant to respond to that emergency.” 

Now, energy can be developed through many different sources. Solar panels can help generate energy during the day, while turbines can do the same at night when wind gusts are at their greatest.  

The CU Denver study hopes to show government leaders and utility companies that there are even more options to support a healthy grid and reduce carbon emissions.

“We are hoping that these EVs can help make the grid more flexible and give more incentives to consumers,” Kiesling said. “A utility’s primary operating objective is reliability, but flexibility is the name of the game for the 21st century grid.” 

This project also supports CU Denver Strategic Plan goals to excel at innovation and grow contemporary interdisciplinary research. Graduate students will also participate in the research. The three-year, $750,000 National Science Foundation-funded study will focus on four interdisciplinary areas: 

  1. Experimental economics: Developing peak and off-peak pricing models that consumers and utility companies would support 
  2. Impact to buildings and grid: Evaluating how bidirectional (two-way) charging affects stability of the grid and buildings’ energy efficiency, with the overall goal of reducing emissions and costs 
  3. Consumer behavior: Understanding how all citizens can benefit from VGI, how to overcome potential socio-economic barriers and how lessons learned can be integrated into transportation and urban planning 
  4. Data analytics: Examining findings from the first three points and using machine-learning algorithms to identify public charger locations and pricing strategies that would be advantageous for EV owners and energy companies 

“The idea is for us to present an EV charging network plan in a box,” Kiesling said. “It’s really all a chicken and egg problem. In the 1910s, people weren’t going to buy cars until they knew they could get gas close to home. And others said they weren’t going to build gas stations until there’s enough people who have cars. We’re seeing the same phenomenon today.” 

But market trends could influence that dynamic. The public charging network must rapidly expand by at least 140,000 fast-charging ports to service the 26.4 million electric vehicles projected on the road by 2030, according to a recent report by the Edison Electric Institute. More than half of consumers are considering the purchase of a new or used EV within the next year, up from 38% in 2021, according to a survey from Cox Automotive.  

While only a handful of current EV models have bidirectional charging built in, market demand for this feature will likely make it more standard in the years ahead, said Moatassem Abdallah, associate professor in CU Denver’s Civil Engineering Department. 

As climate change creates sweltering summers, a longer wildfire season, and other emergencies that can cause power outages, it has made bidirectional charging even more critical, said Farnoush Banaei-Kashani, associate professor of computer science and engineering at CU Denver. 

“Think about a natural disaster: You need shelters, but the power may be out. You could use generators, but that offers limited power. If people could bring their EVs in, now you can charge up the building.” 

In addition to Kiesling, Abdallah, and Banaei-Kashani, other researchers participating in the study are: Manish Shirgaokar, associate professor, CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning; Fernando Mancilla-David, professor of electrical engineering, CU Denver College of Engineering, Design and Computing;Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance and a CU Denver alumnus; Serena Kim, assistant professor of public policy, North Carolina State University; and Rimvydas Baltaduonis, associate professor of economics, Gettysburg College.