Why Google, GM and other big names in technology and auto are collaborating on virtual power plants

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Some big names in smart homes, solar and electric vehicles yesterday launched a coalition to develop standards and policies for virtual power plants.

The effort was initially funded by Google Nest and General Motors and will be led by the nonprofit RMI, a clean energy advocacy group. The new coalition is called the Virtual Power Plant Partnership, or VP3, and founding members also include Ford, solar companies SunPower and Sunrun, as well as smart electrical panel maker SPAN and several other power management companies.

Virtual power plants (VPPs) capitalize on the idea that electric vehicles and solar systems can serve as back-up power sources for the electrical grid in the home

Virtual power plants (VPPs) capitalize on the idea that electric vehicles and solar systems in the home can serve as backup power sources for the electrical grid. VPPs can also consist of a fleet of smart thermostats and other devices that can adjust their power consumption to reduce strain on the power grid.

It is a valuable service that can help prevent outages during an energy crisis. And VPPs can drive more renewable energy use by better managing the ebb and flow of solar and wind energy that fluctuates with the weather and time of day.

Historically, demand for electricity has peaked in the late afternoon to early evening, when people come home from work – and that happens when the solar energy is declining. Extreme weather can make those demand spikes even more problematic, as people can blow their air conditioning or heating during periods of high demand.

The idea is that a virtual power plant consisting of a fleet of electric vehicles connected to the grid can schedule charging at a time of day when renewable energy is most abundant. Or, if the grid doesn’t have enough power to meet peak demand, EV batteries can collectively send enough energy to the grid to make up for the shortfall. Those VPPs could potentially replace more polluting gas-fired “peak” plants that typically ignite in no time.

Virtual power plants are still relatively new. As such, they could use some standardized practices to roll them out more widely. That’s what VP3 wants to address. The coalition says it is prioritizing research into VPPs and pushing for policies that can get VPPs off the ground. It also plans to develop “industry-wide best practices, standards and roadmaps” for virtual power plants.

“The next 12 to 24 months are critical to developing policies and programs to unlock the potential of virtual power plants, and VP3 is here to make sure the energy transition doesn’t miss a beat,” Mark Dyson, RMI director for carbon-free electricity, said in a press release. The Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed last year should boost sales of electric vehicles and adoption of renewable energy.

“The next 12 to 24 months are crucial”

Power outages in the US have become more common over the past decade as climate change brings more destructive heat waves, wildfires and storms. Clean energy is the only real solution to that heightened risk, even though the electricity grid will probably experience more growing pains during the transition. That makes coordinated efforts like virtual power plants — and collaboration across industries as we’re seeing with VP3 — a big step toward designing a more sustainable and resilient world.

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