Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) launched a new facility designed to develop and harmonize interoperability between electric vehicles and the electric charging infrastructure.

Agreed to in November, 2011, the EV-Smart Grid Interoperability Center at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., works in concert with the two other interoperability facilities of its kind in Ispra, Italy and The Netherlands, to create global standards and develop technology from the source of the energy all the way down the line to the residential user.

 “[Interoperability Centers] are a gateway to adopting standards and policies that will expand the use of EVs on the road,” said Eric Isaacs, Director of Argonne.

Interoperability means the electrification of vehicles, such as in hybrids, plug in hybrids, and straight evs, can be managed by the power grid without any inconvenience to the end user. The promotional literature states: “Interoperability supports the ideal of universal charging…any plug-in electric vehicle…any electric vehicle supply equipment…anywhere…anytime.”

The Centers establish and develop a system that is followed all through the product life cycle of an electrified vehicle, incorporating applications from auto manufacturers, parts suppliers, public and private charging equipment, power sources, government and consumers.

The green-tie affair in southwest suburban Lemont was a picture of connectivity and harmony, from keynote EU and DOE dignitaries to demonstrations and panels from members of the Big Three automakers, to the energy industry reps to manufacturers in the electronic supply chain. And a whole party of engineers.

Engineers get knocked for their communication skills, yet the minds at the Interoperability Centers are essentially creating a language to be shared by everyone in the twisted net of energy supply, auto manufacturing and policy making, three massive organizations with its own complex, jargon-filled language. That’s just in the United States. Add the 29 member countries of the European Commission, the prospect of China, and you’re dealing with one of the most complex organisms in mankind. The kind that only an engineer could standardize.

If you’ve ever travelled abroad, you know how problematic outlets and adapters and amps and Hertz and volts and watts can be. Even at home, there are different chargers for different devices. Imagine the same charging inconsistencies with a $40,000 piece of technology.

“The issue is harmonization and interoperability, not necessarily having all the same thing,” explained Phyllis Yoshida, the DOE’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Currently there are three competing EV charging standards: CHADeMO is a DC quick charge protocol originated in Japan and found in the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi MiEV and a few others; the SAE Combo Coupler used by U.S. and European automakers (and the Interoperability Center) incorporates AC Level 1, Level 2 and DC quick charging; then there’s Tesla, out in Elonland.  

Each standard has its proponents. “From a communications standpoint, the combo coupler can do a lot of smart energy management with that communication protocol,” explained Jason Harper, an electrical engineer in the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne. CHADeMo is only for DC charging, so it would need another communication protocol to communicate with a smart grid.

Mass adoption of electric vehicles would require intensive energy management.

This is where the smart grid comes in. The smart grid essentially means energy management. If you were to look out your backyard or alley, you’d probably see a wire leading from your house to a utility pole with a bigger wire. In residential areas that bigger wire connects to a transformer that supplies power to say 12 houses, depending on where you live and the density of housing. An electric vehicle makes great demand on power supply, much more than refrigeration or air conditioning. So if one person in your web is charging his EV, it’s not a problem. But if the EV market continues to grow, as expected and as promoted by the European Union, the United States and the biggest market in the world, China, then the grid will be correspondingly taxed. So neighbor Bob can charge his car now with no problem, but what will happen if three or five homes that share your transformer are charging at the same time?

The Interoperability Centers are addressing this question now so it’s not a problem later.

“Interoperability will provide standardized devices that are capable of functioning with each other,” said Keith Hardy, Director of the U.S. EV-Smart Grid Interoperability Center at Argonne.

 The devices that tell us how much energy is left in our charge, or how much it would cost to charge a car off-peak or at peak demand, will be the same. A smart grid app on your smart phone (hasn’t “smart phone” gone the way of the “world wide web”?) can show your battery charge, time to end of charge, range left on battery and the ComEd real price of electricity at that moment. If too many cars are charging at the same time, you’ll be notified that you’ve reached “branch load,” explained Hardy. Price can go up, or energy can be redirected in a process called load management, which can save money versus an infrastructure upgrade. It creates an open transaction between supplier and user: you can charge up at peak times and pay more. Or, if you’re not using your EV at peak times, you can sell back that energy into the grid, then recharge later at night to save a buck. It’s like day trading.

“The goal is to align communication as close as possible so everyone knows there will be an open market with free competition,” said Giovanni De Santi, Director of the Interoperability Center in Italy.

With load management, energy becomes an open market commodity where purchasers can make the most informed decision. Smart. Efficient. 

This will in turn enable the deregulated energy service providers like ComEd in Illinois or Southern California Edison in Southern California to speak the same language to the same devices that are monitoring and managing energy flow.

The smart grid will also utilize massive energy production coming from intermittent, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. The uniformity in technological language, how devices speak to each other, and storing and delivering energy from intermittent sources, are best managed by a smart grid. Matched by industry, the DOE has pumped $4.5 billion into smart grid development and boosted the EV industry.  

“None of the alternative fuel sources can get you as far [as electrics],” said the DOE’s Phyllis Yoshida, who was quick to point out the Administration’s support of all alternative fuels. “The central key is some electrification of all the cars.”

The DOE has four stated goals in supporting electrification: Energy independence; reduced petroleum consumption; reduced greenhouse gas emissions; improved fuel economy.

 “You’re going to be using less energy per car,” said Hardy. “But you don’t want to impact the grid negatively.”