University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

Leading the Charge for Smarter Electric Vehicle Management

PAUL HINES, PH.D., ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF COMPUTER SCIENCE; JEFF FROLIK, PH.D., ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING

Growth in plug-in electric car sales is good news for the environment in terms of oil consumption and air pollution. But this growing fleet will put new strain on the nation's aging electrical distribution systems, like transformers and underground cables, especially at times of peak demand — say, six in the evening when people come home from work. How to manage all these cars seeking a socket at the same time — without crashing the grid or pushing rates through the roof — has some utilities wondering, if not downright worried. A team of UVM scientists co-led by Paul Hines, an expert on power systems, has created a novel solution, which they reported on in the March 2014 issue of IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

"The key to our approach is to break up the request for power from each car into multiple small chunks — into packets," says Jeff Frolik, Ph.D., Hines' colleague in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and co-author on the new study.

By using the nation's growing network of "smart meters" — a new generation of household electric meters that communicate information back-and-forth between a house and the utility — the new approach would let a car charge for, say, five or ten minutes at a time. And then the car would get back into the line and make another request for power. If demand was low, it would continue charging, but if it was high, the car would have to wait.

"The vehicle doesn't care. And, most of the time, as long as people get charged by morning, they won't care either," says Hines. "By charging cars in this way, it's really easy to let everybody share the capacity that is available on the grid."

Taking a page out of how radio and internet communications are distributed, the team's strategy will allow electric utilities to spread out the demand from plug-in cars over the whole day and night. The information from the smart meter prevents the grid from being overloaded. "And the problem of peaks and valleys is becoming more pronounced as we get more intermittent power — wind and solar — in the system," says Hines. "There is a growing need to smooth out supply and demand."

At the same time, the UVM team's invention — patent pending — would protect a car owner's privacy. A charge management device could be located at the level of, for example, a neighborhood substation. It would assess local strain on the grid. If demand wasn't too high, it would randomly distribute "chargepackets" of power to those households that were putting in requests.

"Our solution is decentralized," says Pooya Rezaei, a doctoral student working with Hines and the lead author on the new paper. "The utility doesn't know who is charging."

Instead, the power would be distributed by a computer algorithm called an "automaton" that is the technical heart of the new approach. The automaton is driven by rising and falling probabilities, which means everyone would eventually get a turn — but the utility wouldn't know, or need to know, a person's driving patterns or what house was receiving power when.

Others have proposed elaborate online auction schemes to manage demand. "Some of the other systems are way too complicated," says Hines, who has extensive experience working with actual power companies. "In a big city, a utility doesn't want to be managing millions of tiny auctions. Ours is a much simpler system that gets the job done without overloading the grid and gets people what they want the vast majority of the time."

Photo caption: UVM scientists Pooya Rezaei, Paul Hines, Ph.D., and Jeff Frolik, Ph.D., think packets of power can revolutionize the way electric companies deal with the coming tide of plug-in cars.

Last modified May 15 2014 03:04 PM