Intertubes lit up like Christmas earlier this month, when Elon Musk introduced the world to virtual power plants. Virtual power plants are not really a new thing, although it may have looked like that given all the crowds. Still, it was nice to see how a prominent supplier of rolling power storage units is focusing attention on VPPs. This is because VPPs can benefit low-income households, including those who cannot afford an electric car, rooftop solar panels, or home battery systems.
Virtual power plants 101
For those of you who are new to this topic, a virtual power plant is exactly what it says. Instead of a large, centralized power plant, you ask individual payers of tariffs in a given area to contribute any energy they can produce or store in the grid, when needed.
For small taxpayers, the production is usually done by roof solar panels. The energy storage part can be charged with EV batteries and batteries in the building.
Another key element of virtual power plants is their ability to change the demand for electricity. Even without an energy-generating angle, VPPs perform a valuable service by asking payers – via carrots, sticks, or both – to shift their energy consumption from the peak period of the day to other hours.
If all goes according to plan, VPPS can reduce electricity consumption during peak periods. Otherwise, a new gas-fired peak power plant would be needed to meet the highest demand, which would be expensive. And that would contribute to global warming. And you should find a place to put it.
In recent years, it has been difficult to coordinate the activities of individual taxpayers. Today, software can do the job.
Virtual power plants are an old hat
Virtual power plants have not yet become mainstream, but they are on the way. Leading solar and energy storage company SunPower, for example, launched a major VPP project in New York City in 2016, and Sunrun joined the VPP Club in 2020.
Utilities have also started considering EV charging in the workplace and other programs to shift the burden of EV charging. This includes the ERCOT network management agency in Texas. ERCOT already has at least one vehicle-based VPP under its auspices through ev.energy (currently only for load transfer, not for vehicle-to-network operations).
What is missing is the integration of EV charging into VPP systems with vehicle-to-network or vehicle-to-home charging. And it’s already starting to happen. Earlier this spring, for example, global clean technology company Nuvve Holding Corp. merged with Swell Energy Inc. to include electric vehicles in the VPP mix for residential and commercial users.
“This collaboration will expand opportunities for residential users to combine battery storage, solar and smart charging of electric vehicles into a comprehensive home energy system. These advanced optimization capabilities also meet the energy consumption of residential buildings and the needs of electric vehicles, ”explained Swell.
EV charging and VPPs, perfectly combined
The new merger includes Nuvve’s network-connected building energy management services and the proprietary GIVe G (Grid Integrated Vehicle) cloud-based software platform. GIVe enables two-way operation from vehicle to network, which means that owners of electric vehicles can use their EV battery to supply electricity to the network when needed.
Swell’s contribution is the GridAmp ™ energy management system for distributed energy resources, including small-sized assets such as roof solar panels and building batteries.
The system “maximizes DER value for utilities while delivering more network services to businesses in their VPP networks and offering utility users GridRevenue ™ payments to participate in virtual power plants,” explains Swell, adding that the smart EV charging support supports “an electrified future where customers have greater control over your assets, the ability to conduct electricity transactions and reliable energy resources available 24 hours a day. ”
What is missing from this picture?
If you notice pieces that are still missing, run out right away and buy yourself a cigar. While some VPP participants can earn in a small bank (“grid transaction opportunities”) from their solar and electricity assets, most low- and middle-income households are mostly left in the dark.
The issue of income is a constant obstacle to the adoption of solar energy on roofs, mainly due to bottlenecks involving rented real estate and multi-family homes, in addition to financial barriers. Environmental justice issues also affect that. These same elements also affect the ability to buy an electric vehicle and limit the charging options at home.
It will take some time to solve the EV part of the VPP stock puzzle, but in the meantime the U.S. Department of Energy is looking for ways to bring more solar energy to rooftops and other forms of solar energy to low- and middle-income households. Virtual power plants could be part of the solution, and here comes the new VPP of the non-profit energy agency MCE.
MCE angle on capital and renewable energy
As described by MCE, the new virtual power plant is part of the city of Richmond, California’s “Advanced Energy Community Project”, which is financed with the help of 3 million dollars by the California Energy Commission. In addition to the new VPP, the program includes energy-efficient rehabilitations for abandoned homes.
The new VPP “will enable savings on bills and increase local network reliability, security and efficiency for low-income residents,” explains MCE.
If all goes according to plan, there will be a significant shift in workload from peak hours from 4pm to 9pm, which will result in a significant reduction in utility bills as those participating in the VPP are rewarded for their contribution to valuable network services.
The entire project is a program of energy equality and accessibility from soup to nuts:
“MCE’s virtual power plant will include smart, clean energy technologies including energy storage, smart thermostats, rooftop solar energy, space for heat pump and water heating, and charging electric vehicles. The VPP will initially be connected to up to 100 Zero Net Carbon Homes (ZNC Homes) and larger commercial and industrial sites. The ZNC Homes program will finance the purchase, complete rehabilitation and resale of houses as affordable assets. ”
“These ZNC houses will be built to be energy efficient and resilient, and each home will have a complete set of smart devices and cost-saving equipment, including rooftop solar energy, battery-powered energy storage and heat pumps,” adds MCE. “Local businesses will also have the opportunity to install batteries that provide resilience to network outages, bill savings and revenue-generating potential.”
We will know more after 2025, when the project should be launched.
For those of you leading the results at home, the project developer is ZNE Alliance, with other partners including MCE and ALCO Building Solutions, Ecoshift Consulting, Energy Solutions, mPrest, Richmond Community Foundation, THG Energy Solutions, TRC and ZGlobal.
One-fifth of Richmond households “live in poverty,” according to MCE, which is twice the average for the Contra Costa metropolitan area. It also exceeds the California state average for households under the CARE discount program, at 37% compared to 25%.
If the Richmond plan succeeds, it could be a model for other communities with high public aid rates to switch their housing stock to energy efficiency technology and renewable energy.
The ZNE Alliance is a nonprofit organization that has a portfolio of energy equality programs operating nationwide, including a similar Advanced Energy Community initiative in Lancaster, a climate initiative in the San Francisco region, and a nationwide electrification and fleet planning initiative.
Follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Solar panel courtesy of MCE.
Take a look at our brand new ones Guide to e-bikes. If you are interested in electric bikes, this is the best place to start your e-mobility journey!
Appreciate the originality of CleanTechnice and cleantech news reporting? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica member, support, technician or ambassador – or patron at Patreon.