To Jarrod Goentzel, energy is just another supply chain problem: the product being delivered is electrons. “We have to build inventory,” says Goentzel, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s supply chain management program.
The problem? “There are not a lot of good ways to do that,” he says. Wind and solar plants don’t produce electrons as predictably as coal or nuclear plants do, and to increase their reliability—to build inventory—the energy needs to be stored somehow. But storage, particularly storage in large batteries, is expensive.
But what about large batteries that are already in use? Conveniently, electric vehicles have batteries. Using that capacity to help increase renewable’s reliability — an idea called vehicle-to-grid—is an intriguing idea for renewable energy advocates. Goentzel wondered whether it would be an attractive idea for a group of people he’s worked closely with over the years — fleet managers, people who could have access to a large number of electric vehicles.
“The natural place for vehicle-to-grid rollouts is going to be with fleets,” he says. To begin with, that means fleets operating in cities, where delivery routes are within the range of today’s electric vehicles. “The fleets all come back to the same location at night or whenever they're down. They're parked in one location. They can connect into the grid where the grid can manage it better.”
For Goentzel, the question isn’t whether a fleet of trucks can help grid operators with their jobs. It’s whether the grid can help businesses by increasing their revenue. Utilities might pay for electric vehicles’ storage and generation capacity, but would this approach make an impact on the cost of operating a vehicle? The business case he and his team laid out suggested the savings would total $700 to $1,400 — about 5 to 10 percent of vehicle operation costs.
“It's not going to completely drive behavior,“ Goentzel says. “But it's enough to pay attention to as a company or a fleet operator.”
The companies most likely to take note of this opportunity are truck companies like Ryder or Penske, which own large number of vehicles and operate them for other business. But, Goentzel says, “Any vehicle you see in the city is going to park at some point, and it's a viable candidate.”
That means UPS trucks, Peapod grocery-delivery trucks, service providers, government fleets, “any vehicle that’s of a decent size and there’s more than one of them, managed by somebody,” according to Goentzel, could live a double life. During the day, they could make their rounds; at night, or in off-hours, they could help ensure that the power from wind and solar sources matches the quality of the power form coal.
“It's a lot easier to aggregate and control a fleet,” says Goentzel. “It's a matter of turning individual behavior into fleet behavior. That's the work.” One day, any electric vehicle, even those parked in personal garages, could help manage energy flow.