Idling away

Researchers are tapping into idle electric vehicles, examining the potential of harnessing wasted energy, as well as helping power overworked and aging electricity grids.

Electric vehicles are justifiably the focus of much research and innovation within the transportation industry, but the infrastructure required to maintain those same electric vehicles can sometimes become a second thought.

Researchers at a Canadian University are working on a way to use idle electric vehicles, specifically heavier duty trucks, to act as mobile generators which will help take the pressure off overworked and aging electricity grids.

“Canada’s power grids need to be upgraded,” said Dr XiaoYu Wu, lead researcher in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

“The need to rapidly adjust generators to meet fluctuating demand is one of the reasons that the grid price is unstable and volatile. This creates the potential for clean energy storage to flatten the demand and price of electricity.”

The team’s research builds on vehicle-to-grid technology which employs special chargers to push unused energy from electric vehicle (EV) batteries back to the power grid for storage. This electricity in-storage can support the grid during weather-related outages or to reduce the demand during peak periods.

The study proposes paying drivers of fuel cell powered trucks to rest during rush hour and, while resting, to plug into a hydrogen refuelling station or pipeline and use their trucks’ idle fuel cells as generators to provide electricity to the grid. The result is less vehicle traffic on highways, reduced energy use at peak times and cleaner way to store energy.

Waterloo University graduate student Daniel Ding developed a mathematical model to simulate the operation, then used software to analyse and model the potential of hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric vehicles to balance the grid load and decrease the peak price and carbon intensity.

“Hydrogen fuel cells offer advantages over other fuels like batteries, which require more investment and pollute more when you dispose of them,” Ding said. “Our preliminary findings show that using existing fuel cells in electric vehicles of the future can decrease costs on the grid.”

This energy storage solution has applications beyond trucks. Heavy-duty vehicles and trains — like switcher locomotives that typically are idled until they’re needed to change train routes — could also be early adopters.

“With the increasing demand to decarbonise heavy duty vehicles, the fuel cell electric vehicle fleet is expected to expand rapidly,” said Dr Wu.

“Connecting these trucks to the grid for the peak-shifting purpose may provide economic incentives for adopting hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and help facilitate the emergence of a large-scale hydrogen economy.”

The researchers’ next steps will be to test these preliminary findings in the lab and the field to determine its real-world applicability.

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