Electric vehicles can be a line of defence in outage emergencies, research finds

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An Australian National University (ANU) Canberra’s five year study, led by ANU Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program Senior Research Fellow Dr Bjorn Sturmberg, has shown electric vehicle (EV)s can provide backup to the grid in an emergency.

Sixteen electric vehicles in their study fed power back into the electricity grid during a major outage in February 2024 providing the right conditions for the first real-world test of electric vehicles and chargers.

“We now know a vehicle-to-grid system can work because they’re essentially big batteries on wheels,” Sturmberg said.

Australian National University research shows vehicles sending power to the grid during a real-world emergency.

Image: Australian National University

“We have a fleet of 51 EVs across Canberra that monitor the grid whenever they’re plugged in and can quickly inject short bursts of power to rebalance the system if the national grid rapidly loses power.”

At the time of major storms in Melbourne in February 2024, 16 Nissan Leaf EVs participating in the study, were plugged in at properties across Canberra with four charging, and 12 were idle.

“These vehicles quickly stopped charging and within seconds started discharging power into the grid, as they’ve been programmed to do,” Sturmberg said.

“In total, they provided 107 kW of support to the national grid and to put that in perspective, 105,000 vehicles responding in this way would fully cover the backup required for the whole of ACT and NSW.”

“For context, there were just under 100,000 EVs sold in Australia last year.”

Australian National University researcher Dr Bjorn Sturmberg from ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Image: Crystal Li Australian National University

Sturmberg said there is still work to be done to balance the growing demand for vehicle charging with grid security.

“With the number of EVs on our roads growing fast, the grid won’t be able to cope with everyone charging at the same time when they get home in the evening,” he said.

“Additionally, in the case of the February emergency, once the vehicles had provided power for ten minutes some resumed charging by default. There would be little cost or inconvenience in delaying charging for an hour or two in this kind of situation.”

Sturmberg said taking advantage of the opportunity may call for an industry adjustment, where EV manufacturers program their vehicles to stop charging during a grid emergency, with an option for drivers to override for urgent charging.

“Stopping just 6,000 vehicles charging would have kept the power on for those 90,000 customers whose power was cut on February 13,” Sturmberg said.

“Our results show that vehicle-to-grid can be a powerful contributor to our power system’s security, and that all electric vehicles have an important role to play.”

Sturmberg said there are two ways forward, the first being manufacturers bring their bidirectional chargers to Australia in the future.

“Or, there’s exciting research on moving that kind of power electronics and power management out of a charger and into the vehicle, and the difference then is you charge with AC charging rather than DC charging and you can use a regular charger and connection to the grid, and it’s the car itself that is deciding whether to import or export power to the grid,” Sturmberg said.

“In the event of a grid emergency, we should prioritise stopping vehicles that are charging, rather than households and businesses being impacted by blackouts.”

“In that context, consumer behavioural expectations would need to shift too so EV owners know that part of EV ownership is knowing once every five years their car will stop charging for an hour because of an emergency in the power system,” he said.

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