Electric vehicles are going to be a major load on the grid, which makes them either a threat or an opportunity to utilities, depending on how their charging is managed. On Thursday, distributed energy giant Enel X and utility distributed energy management provider EnergyHub announced a partnership aimed at making sure EV chargers remain an asset for the grid. 

Enel X has about 60,000 EV chargers deployed across the country, many of them being actively managed to balance their charging patterns against wholesale energy prices driven by surges and sags in grid demand through technology from its 2017 acquisition of eMotorWerks. Its JuiceBox chargers are part of an Enel X portfolio that helped reduce megawatts of load during California’s grid emergencies this August and September. 

EnergyHub, in turn, provides its Mercury distributed energy resource management systems to utilities across the country to tap the flexibility of smart thermostats, water heaters, solar-battery systems and other behind-the-meter energy assets. Those assets include EV chargers, with utilities including Massachusetts’ Eversource and Baltimore Gas & Electric using EnergyHub’s platform to monitor EV charging and send price signals to guide when they’re used. 

Eversource and BG&E will be the first two utilities to tap into the partners’ new combined capabilities, Giovanni Bertolino, head of e-mobility for Enel X North America, said in an interview. For utilities, the move opens up existing and new JuiceBox chargers to being managed not just for wholesale energy price value but also for distribution utility energy management and grid relief. 

Enel X, in turn, gets to work with EnergyHub’s platform “that not only activates EV chargers but [also] offers access to other distributed energy resources,” he said. EV chargers can pull as much grid power as an entire home when charging at full, he noted. Balancing that with other controllable home energy assets can provide more flexibility in how the entire load is managed. 

Enel X is bundling EV charging for participation in wholesale energy markets in California and looking at similar opportunities elsewhere, he said. But it’s also working with almost 40 North American utilities on providing EV charging data and management. 

“Some utilities are just looking for getting that metering data so they can inform their strategy and decisions on how to invest in the grid or design rate to drive behaviors,” he said. “Others are more advanced, with time-of-use rates” to incentivize EV owners to shift charging during times of peak grid demand to cheaper off-peak hours. “And some are doing more active load-balancing and management through our platform.” 

An expanding role for EV charging in grid management 

EnergyHub, which has more than 40 utility customers across the country using its platform to manage residential distributed energy resources, sees the partnership as a way to “broaden the portfolio of behind-the-meter, grid edge assets that we can bring to our utility clients,” Matt Johnson, the company’s vice president of business development, said in an interview. 

Enel’s expertise in wholesale energy markets could open more opportunities for utilities to earn revenue for shifting charging loads under time-of-use rates or critical peak pricing rates being rolled out to EV customers. 

EnergyHub is also working on expanding its work in the commercial and industrial space, including its recent expansion to managing utility National Grid’s commercial and industrial demand response portfolio in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Enel X has an extensive C&I portfolio through its acquisition of U.S. demand response leader EnerNOC and continued growth in the sector, providing opportunities for EnergyHub to work in those markets, he noted. 

EV charging infrastructure is projected to become a significant share of the 380 gigawatts of distributed energy resource capacity being deployed across the United States over the next five years, according to research firm Wood Mackenzie. That makes for a major new source of utility electricity sales, but it also implies a significant new strain on the grid. 

That’s pushing utilities to plan ahead for the grid infrastructure to support those new loads, as well as for pricing programs that can incentivize charging patterns that won’t overwhelm the grid. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that full implementation of smart charging could reduce the costs of grid upgrades to manage EV growth from 30 to 70 percent, compared to doing nothing to manage these new loads. 

“Utilities are worried about that inevitable time when there’s enough EV charging load on a single feeder or substation to put stress on the grid,” Johnson said. “These utility programs are trying to proactively figure out how to deal with these problems before they arise.” 

U.S. utilities are planning a combined $2.8 billion in EV charging program investments through 2026, according to Wood Mackenzie research, led by states like CaliforniaNew York and others with aggressive transportation decarbonization goals. 

Early adoption of electric buses by municipal transit authorities and of electric trucks by corporate fleet operators could make EV fleet charging depots the first focus for utilities seeking to reduce grid strains. Parking lots and garages at workplaces, retail hubs and multifamily housing will be another key pinch point, with companies like TeslaEVgo, ChargePoint and Electrify America rapidly expanding public charging networks. At the same time, residential charging systems make up the majority of EV charging loads and will also need to be actively managed.  

“Utilities are going to see more and more EV adoption, and smart charging is the answer to that issue,” Enel X's Bertolino said. “It allows [us] to really mitigate the impact of that capacity, as you can better schedule those charging events in a way that’s manageable by the grid. You can even improve the utilization of the grid.”