The race to an EV-powered Canada
Switching to electric vehicles will take massive infrastructure transformations. Omid Ardakanian and his students are helping to pave the road that gets us there.
At this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), a group of over 100 governments and vehicle manufacturers agreed to end the sale and construction of fossil-fuel burning cars by 2040. Canada has an even more ambitious vision to wheel these cars off of the sales lot by 2035.
This sounds great, but there’s a big problem: the electrical grids of most cities, including Edmonton, are not built to withstand the energy demands of so many electric vehicles drawing power at the same time.
When charging, electric vehicles (EVs) use 10 to 20 times the energy of all the appliances in a single household combined. Plug in all of the roughly 700,000 vehicles in Edmonton at once, and every transformer in the city explodes. We have no choice but to confront the many speed bumps that it takes to modernize.
“This problem isn’t entirely new,” Ardakanian said. “Electric cars are kind of similar to air conditioners. When we had AC units installed in Canada, many cities were overloading transformers, which caused problems for planning and operation of the power distribution system.”
What is new, however, are the methods we use to treat the increased pressure on our power grid. Ardakanian and his team are working to create a “smart grid” system, one that will change the way electricity flows through cities and help them cope with an influx of electric vehicles.
Our current systems are “inefficient”, according to Ardakanian.
“They do not take advantage of real-time data,” he said. “The controllers that move energy through our energy grid are reactive; they observe what happens in the grid and try to react rather than trying to predict what will happen in the grid and prepare to respond to that in advance.”
By installing more data-collecting sensors throughout the energy grid, and making better use of existing sensors such as smart meters, Ardakanian thinks that he can get a measure of the “heartbeat of the grid.” This “heartbeat” will help us understand how much power is being consumed, where it is being consumed and where it should be going to avoid things like power outages and energy being wasted.
He envisions a more reliable network that will allow utility control centres and chargers in households and other city buildings to communicate with one another. And he is optimistic that this will help avoid catastrophes once more electric vehicles start sucking energy from the grid.
“Electrical vehicles, in one sense, are better to deal with than other large appliances and large loads like air conditioning devices because they can be controlled,” he said. “Today you cannot send a control signal to most appliances. Say that you have to throttle the amount of energy you’re consuming, or the rate at which you consume energy, for electric cars, this is doable.”
Keeping EVs eco-friendly
Even if a smart grid can keep electric cars on the road and transformers intact — and it is doubtful that on its own such a system could equip cities to handle the power drain — there is still the matter of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We aren’t more eco-friendly if our vehicles continue to draw power from CO2-emitting sources such as the many power plants in Alberta that are operated with gas and coal.
One solution devised by the research team involves beefing up solar power infrastructure.
“We came up with a potential solution that works by installing renewables,” Rouhani said. “We looked at solar energy, solar farms, rooftop solar panels, and their integration with battery storage…If we have surplus energy from the solar and we have the battery storage, then we can charge the battery storage, and that battery storage can be used for later in the evening or the night when we don’t have solar power.”
The research question guiding the team is how to size battery storage and solar panels so that it is guaranteed that grid power is used for at most a few hours a day. This would decrease the vehicles’ dependence on fossil fuel power and also ameliorate some of the extra drain on the grid.
“Only for five per cent of cases would we need to ask for the main grid to provide us with power,” Rouhani said. “But this is based on a scenario in which EVs make up about 15 per cent of vehicles.”
Rouhani’s newest research is tackling other EV-related problems, such as how to ensure charging stations distribute electricity efficiently when multiple vehicles need a boost at the same time.
“When EVs arrive at a charging station, some are 20 per cent charged, some are 30, some 80, so it’s always a wise plan to distribute this charging,” he said. “The ‘inefficient’ algorithm provides the maximum rate of charge for any incoming EVs. But the smart strategy is to distribute the available capacity so that those who require less of a charge don’t have to wait the same amount of time as those who need a full charge.”
The highway ahead
Transitioning to a transportation system that relies on electric power and doesn’t add to our CO2 emissions will likely be a decades-long effort from researchers and industries across the world.
It will also require all of us to make changes to the way we move: more planning for trips, waiting longer to fuel up, less travel, and perhaps fewer vehicles on the road.
Rouhani thinks that the biggest uncertainty on the highway ahead is just how society will respond to these changes.
“Right now the percentage of EV owners is much less than 10 per cent,” he said. “If that number is reversed, how will human beings react to that? How will infrastructure change?”
Regardless, he said, “I’m very optimistic about technology and the progress research has already and will continue to contribute to technology.”