Measuring Smart Charging Preferences to Avoid Grid Strain and Increase Renewable Energy Use

July 25, 2023

Professor John Helveston

Congratulations to Assistant Professor John Helveston of the Engineering Management and Systems Engineering Department on receiving a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation! With this grant, Helveston and his team will conduct the study, “Quantifying the Benefits and Constraints of Plug-In Electric Vehicles (PEVs) Smart Charging Adoption,” in which they will measure the smart charging preferences of PEV owners and integrate those preferences into energy system simulations.

“This grant is really exciting for me and my colleagues on the project. We are glad that the Sloan Foundation recognizes the significance of smart charging for achieving a low-carbon energy system and the critical role of human behavior in making it all work,” Helveston stated.

The Sloan Foundation was founded in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan Jr. to fund research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics. One of the main things they look for when selecting research projects within any of their broad subject areas to receive funding is whether or not the project has a high expected return to society.

Society will benefit immensely from Heleveston’s project as it will address one of the world’s pressing issues: how to manage PEV charging. PEVs are expected to be the largest source of new electricity demand in the coming decades. If left unmanaged, however, the timing of this charging could lead to detrimental effects worldwide. 

According to Helveston, one of the most significant issues with large-scale PEV adoption is the potential to increase the “peak load” on the grid. Peak load refers to the time of day when electricity demand is highest, which typically occurs around 5 to 7 p.m. when people return from work and turn on multiple appliances. If everyone also plugged in a PEV at that time, the increase in peak demand could put an immense strain on the grid and potentially increase emissions since operators would likely have to use fossil fuels to meet the demand. 

However, this can be avoided by simply moving the PEV charging to later in the evening. In this study, Helveston and his team will be working to understand the benefits and costs of shifting this load with utility-controlled “smart” PEV charging, which involves giving the grid operator permission to charge peoples’ PEVs when it is most convenient for the grid. This approach not only helps to avoid increases in peak demand but also could streamline the integration of renewable electricity sources. For example, the wind tends to blow more at night when electricity demand is otherwise low; by moving PEV charging later into the evening, this wind energy can be used to charge PEVs. The same applies to using solar energy during the day for workplace charging.

While utility-controlled smart charging will provide countless positive benefits, not every PEV owner will be willing to opt into such a program. This study aims to understand the detailed conditions under which PEV owners will be more likely to participate in these programs. By improving this understanding, the team can design better smart charging programs and incentives to increase participation. 

“I have been focused on understanding consumers and their preferences for low-carbon technologies for my whole career, and this project is a unique opportunity to combine that expertise with energy system modeling in a partnership with actual electric utilities. The outcomes of this project could have real, concrete impacts on their planning and decision-making,” Helveston stated.