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Electric Buses Can Bring Grid Stability, and Profit

A new pilot project in British Columbia will serve as Canada’s first bidirectional charging initiative involving the heavy-duty public transportation vehicles.

Heavy-duty electric vehicles can earn money, just by sitting at the charger.

A project involving electric coach buses and bidirectional charging in British Columbia could help to make the case for a technology development that officials say may blunt the impact of EVs on the electric grid.

“When I am sharing power with the grid from my batteries when the grid needs it, and getting paid for that so that’s a business transaction. And it means that the utilities — the grid — will not have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, adding more electric capacity,” said Rob Safrata, CEO of Coast to Coast Experiences (CTCE) and Novex Delivery Solutions.

CTCE, a motor coach tourism company, operates about 130 buses in Niagara, N.Y.; Seattle; and Vancouver, British Columbia. Only two of those buses are electric. The company is participating in Canada’s first vehicle-to-grid pilot project in a partnership among BC Hydro, Powertech Labs, Fermata Energy, The Lion Electric Company and BorgWarner.

The project will use Fermata’s bidirectional charging technology to serve as the nerve center between the vehicles and the utility. The technology has been used by other fleet operators such as the city of Boulder, Colo.

A primary goal of the project is demonstrating to the utility provider how distributed energy resources can be of value, particularly in their grid-planning efforts, said George Miller, director of business development at Fermata Energy.

“Some of what this pilot is doing is to prove that ... and then to learn from it,” said Miller.

The project will also function as a signal to let operators — particularly those with large vehicles and big batteries — see that the vehicles can provide revenue streams beyond the shuttling of goods or people. But also, projects like this one can demonstrate the grid management capabilities of EVs.

“It’s setting forth the path for what is the additional capabilities of our charging software to optimize, based on different demand signals and pricing signals from the energy markets,” said Miller.

“I would say fleet is a great use case,” he added. “And a range of different fleets would be applicable. I would also say the residential consumer is another great use case when fully aggregated.”

CTCE has plans to transition its entire fleet to electric buses. The reasons are multifold. Safrata likes the idea of operating vehicles that do not contribute to air pollution, and the many health variables that impacts. He also appreciates the operational cost savings the vehicles can yield. Recharging a bus with electricity is only about 12 percent of the cost of refilling the tank with diesel, he said, adding maintenance costs are only about 25 percent of the cost of maintaining an internal combustion engine bus.

“The brakes, they’re the big one,” he said, calling attention to one of the first and most noticeable changes encountered when driving an electric bus, compared to a conventional vehicle. “With regenerative braking we do one-foot driving. We hardly ever touch the brakes.”

Still, despite the benefits of vehicle-to-grid technology, the standard has not yet caught on in any significant way in North America. The reasons are many. But generally, the shift to allow EVs to function as mobile batteries able to feed power back onto the grid is one that will require the coordination of multiple players ranging from the utilities themselves, carmakers, charging technology providers and the regulatory environment.

Allowing cars to function in ways beyond driving “is a process, and it’s something that’s new for many of these vehicle OEMs,” said Miller.

“It should end up being software upgrades for most of these vehicles. It’s going to generally require them to get comfortable with who and how it’s happening,” he added.

Carmakers like Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Tesla, Kia and Nissan have adopted some form of bidirectional or vehicle-to-grid capabilities for their latest models, and have been promoting these features to drivers.

“It’s growing,” said Miller. “When your peers start to promote that, then you do. But it’s been a long road.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.