Smart charging won't help adoption of electric cars, says SFU study

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      Tesla is no longer the only company making awe-inspiring electric cars. Iconic vehicles like the MINI, BMW Roadster, and the Volkswagen bus have now been reimagined with electric engines, and big-name manufacturers are pumping billions into developing the most efficient technology. It’s a car-buyer’s paradise.

      Despite only making up a small number of vehicles on the roads, the amount of electric cars is growing. As their numbers increase, however, so do skeptics of the technology. Arguing that e-vehicles will create an aggressive mass demand for electricity, lobbyists are forcing policy makers to examine electric cars’ effect on the grid.

      The most popular solution? Smart charging.

      As more renewable energy sources are used to create power, the amount of electricity in the grid becomes volatile. The sun, after all, doesn’t always shine for solar panels, and wind energy can’t be generated by still conditions. Various countries have already begun to move towards a system where the price of electricity varies hour-to-hour, depending on how high the demand is.

      Smart charging lets car owners charge their vehicles when electricity consumption is at its lowest. They can plug in at high-demand hours—6 p.m. after work, for instance—and the battery only starts filling up when the prices are low. This would, say activists, save consumers money.

      According to a new study from SFU, however, those savings are negligible.

      “There are a lot of theories about how great smart charging, or vehicle-to-grid integration, might be,” says professor Jonn Axsen of SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management. “After examining the literature, we found the models weren’t representing actual human behaviour.”

      The study observed how owners of electric cars recharged their vehicles, hoping to discover whether consumers could save money with smart charging. Using data from 1,700 electric-vehicle-buying households across Canada, Axsen and his researches created a three-part, in-depth survey to be completed over three weeks.

      “[The participants had to] provide background on their vehicles and keep a travel diary to collect their driving information,” says Axsen. “There were also choice exercises in which people told us whether they would buy electric vehicles and enroll in a smart-charging program under different conditions.”

      Pulling all the data together, the researchers analyzed the results to develop several models for consumer purchasing decisions, their willingness to enroll in a smart charging program, and whether the savings for the power suppliers and consumers would be worth it. As a comparison, they simulated the impacts on the power grids in B.C. and Alberta.

      According to the study, smart charging saved consumers less than one per cent in overall energy prices—or about $50 to $100 per electric vehicle per year. That’s bad news for activists hoping that the new scheme could help encourage new consumers to buy the technology.

      “The true novelty of this study,” says Axsen, “is that once you talk to real people, you discover that vehicle-to-grid integration is helpful but it won’t save the day in terms of reducing transition costs. Smart charging is not likely to increase electric vehicle adoption.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays