OVO wants to let electric car owners sell their excess energy

OVO's Vehicle-to-Grid electric charger will let customers make money by selling stored power back to the grid

Thomas McMullan
18 Apr 2018
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UK energy company OVO has unveiled a way for drivers of electric vehicles (EVs) to sell power back to the grid, helping to supply energy at peak times.

OVO’s Vehicle-to-Grid Charger is being billed by the green energy firm as the world’s first widely available domestic bidirectional charger. The company says it will give its customers the ability to make revenue from the excess power in their EV, and will start to roll the charger out this summer as part of a two-year trial.

The vehicle-to-grid charger is one of several products announced in London today during the company’s Energy Technology Product Showcase, which also included a 7kW smart Charger for electric cars, a ‘Heat Dynamo’ for optimising a home’s electric storage heater, and a home battery.

OVO CEO and founder, Stephen Fitzpatrick, said that the bidirectional charger would help “to solve one of the biggest challenges facing the energy sector”.

“We’re enabling thousands of EV batteries to help balance the grid in times of peak demand, more renewable energy to come onto the system, and households to reduce their electricity bills.

“This is the first step in building the distributed energy system of the future,” he added. “One that is truly customer-centric and built around households and their connected energy storage devices.”

READ NEXT: We need to talk about batteries and their potential to save the planet

One of the core problems facing the growth of the renewable energy sector is how it should go about matching supply and demand, particularly during peak times in the evenings when there’s likely to be no sunshine – and therefore no energy being generated by solar panels. Battery technology is the broad solution to this issue, and while the grid has been developing centralised mega-battery plants to help store power, companies such as OVO are tackling the problem from the opposite end of the supply chain – with a vision of a decentralised network of home batteries and renewable energy generators.

(Stephen Fitzpatrick announcing OVO's Vehicle-to-Grid charger. Credit: Thomas McMullan) 

The Vehicle-to-Grid Charger is a part of that wider picture. It has a 6kW charge and discharge power rating, and would be fitted into a customer’s home for them to power up their vehicle as well as discharge it back into the grid. In theory, a customer should be able to buy power during times when energy is cheap, then sell it back during peak periods – potentially making a profit from the transaction.

The module will initially be offered to 1,000 Nissan Leaf owners, as part of a two-year trial co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. It’s the first product of its kind to be produced and rolled out at this volume in the UK, and a successful trial could open the doors for a wider expansion across the country. Francisco Carranza Sierra, managing director of Nissan Energy, said that the partnership with OVO reiterates the company's "mission to offer customers free power for their electric vehicles".

"V2G [vehicle-to-grid] will change the rules of the game, making energy cheaper for everyone as we move towards decarbonising the grid," said Sierra. "Our electric vehicles are fully ready to be plugged into the grid, making the UK grid more sustainable and more stable.”

Nissan has said that the trial will be targeted at OVO customers buying the new LEAF and e-NV200 electric van, although owners of older LEAF vehicles will also be able to apply. More details on how to apply will be announced in due course. 

VCharge

All of the products unveiled today are underpinned by a new energy-management platform called VCharge. While the ability to make money from excess power in your electric car is a tantalising prospect, this AI system is arguably the most important of OVO’s announcements.

Using machine learning, VCharge is designed to allow OVO’s chargers and batteries to adapt to shifting demands on the grid, as well as customer usage. It remotely connects OVO’s electrical devices across its distributed power grid, effectively turning the scattered home batteries and EV chargers into a virtual power plant.

The idea is that, with VCharge, your home’s power generation and use will be able to automatically respond to system stress, and adjust electricity flow so you get power at affordable rates. In terms of the Vehicle-to-Grid Charger, for example, this may involve exporting energy or pausing charging at certain times to balance demand.

Dr Kotub Uddin, head of energy storage research at OVO energy, explained to Alphr that this system could do more than offer a financial benefit to customers. One problem facing EVs and home batteries is the fact that lithium-ion batteries degrade over time. While a fossil-fuel car may have a lifetime of 20 years, a typical EV may only work with its battery for ten years.

“I have an Apple iPhone 7,” he said. “I think it lasts around 30 hours on a full charge. Next year, that will probably go down to 20 hours. In two years' time, it will probably last for 12-13 hours. What we're experiencing there is a loss of capacity, a loss of our ability to store charge in that battery. That's what we're feeling when a full charge doesn't give us enough time.

“There's another concept called power fade. If you bought a new laptop and watched a 90-minute movie on it, it would start to heat up. But if you watched that same movie two years later, it would heat up much more. What you're feeling there is a result of the increased resistance in the lithium-ion battery. As you increase resistance in an electrical system, and current tries to pass, you end up with more loss, more heating.”

(OVO's Smart Charger. Credit: OVO)

This degradation can be sped up through poor power management. Constantly topping up your smartphone or laptop is bad for its battery, and electric cars suffer from this same problem. Psychologically, people want their EV to have a full charge at the start of every day, but this isn’t necessarily the best thing for their car’s longevity. Enter VCharge as a way to use AI in managing the capacity of batteries in your home and car.     

“What we've done at OVO is to map out how your usage causes capacity and power fading. What we can do – and this is VCharge's intelligence – is have an understanding of the electrochemistry. So once [VCharge] understands the electrochemistry it can start to navigate how to deal with that battery,” said Uddin.

How this optimisation works on a national scale remains to be seen, but OVO’s ambitions are for its VCharge system to be the thread that ties its distributed grid together. Solutions are definitely needed for the question of how to store renewable energy, and this UK company is making a move to own a space that will become increasingly important over the coming decades.