By Yaron Ben-Nun
From the April 2023 Issue
Sales of electric vehicles (EVs), which produce zero carbon emissions on the road, have increased by two-thirds over the last year in the United States.
But even with EVs still making up just under 6% of annual new car sales, many power grids are struggling to keep up with the electricity demanded to charge these vehicles. In fact, California energy officials have asked residents not to charge their vehicles at times of heavy power use, and other jurisdictions are considering initiating rules for when they can be charged. Large buildings with parking and charging facilities also face higher bills and more demand for electricity due to visitors, workers, or residents charging their cars. This challenge is only expected to grow with the number of EVs.
It is important to find solutions to this growing demand for electricity, and also to make sure we are maximizing electricity produced from renewable sources. To make electric vehicle charging more affordable and sustainable, both utilities and large building facilities must figure out how to store excess renewable energy for later use, and have flexible systems to manage spikes in demand without inconveniencing consumers. It is not about using less electricity, but about finding ways to use more electricity from renewable energy and less from fossil-fuel based energy. This is the only way to lower overall carbon output, which is key to mitigating climate change.
Supply And Demand Are Out Of Sync For Renewable Energy
Even though renewable energy production has increased dramatically, especially in states like California, both by utilities and consumers with their own solar panels, and gotten cheaper, this energy is not available around the clock. That means that when the sun gets lower and sets in the late afternoon and evening, exactly at the time when demand peaks and many people need to charge their vehicles, power generation switches over to fossil fuel.
Fossil fuel-based electricity is obviously more carbon intensive; but, often so-called peaker plants, designed to be fired up quickly and kicking during periods of high demand or when renewable sources are limited, are providing this needed energy boost. These coal and gas-fired peaker plants are often inefficient and result in more carbon emissions than fossil fuel-based power plants that work around the clock. This double whammy means that this electricity is a lot worse for the planet and the wallet than that available from renewable sources during the day.
Buildings Use More Than 40% Of Global Energy
Utilities are taking steps to alleviate this, including embracing new storage technology, which is improving rapidly, to make energy from renewable sources like the sun and wind available during the dark hours and non-windy days. But on the other side of the meter, large consumers of power, like corporate buildings, hotels, and other facilities, can also take steps to better manage demand. Since buildings use 40% of all energy worldwide, they can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions if they are able to shift to using more power based on renewable sources.
The Potential Of Buildings To Generate And Store Energy
To meet increased demand for electric vehicle charging and also reduce carbon emissions and costs, buildings should focus on the storage of renewable energy itself. For example, buildings and facilities with solar panels should also invest in storage systems. In fact, a new law in California is working to encourage this, by paying higher rates for solar sold back to the grid if home or business owners also have a battery to store excess energy.
In addition, buildings should explore novel energy-generation and storage methods that take advantage of a building’s sheer size or unused areas. Examples include gravity energy storage, where unused elevators are used to produce and store energy. A large building complex can even use grid-based electricity during the day—when it is cheaper and coming from renewable sources—to create thermal or other types of storable energy. Then later in the day, this stored energy can be released and used to power electric vehicle charging, air conditioning, or any other needs.
It’s Not About Using Less Electricity
This ability to direct these creative sources of energy generated or stored in the building—known as load shifting—should be at the heart of a facility’s plan to cut carbon emissions. For example, if a building can switch its air conditioning over to a source of stored energy in the evening, then grid electricity that would normally be used for that can go toward charging cars. It is not about using less energy, but using it in a smart way that will be better for budgets and for the planet.
It is critical that large facilities and buildings do their part to enable more affordable and greener charging of EVs. Without this, electric vehicles will not be a green revolution, but simply another demand on the electricity grid, contributing to the emission of more carbon into the atmosphere.
Ben-Nun is the Founder and CTO of Nostromo Energy, which makes water-based energy storage technology.
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