As California withers in its fourth year of extreme drought, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a mandatory 25 percent cut in water consumption in the coming year for the state’s local water supply agencies that serve urban areas.

Although the current order is short term, it could ultimately help transform how California’s city dwellers use water, especially in terms of how data and analytics aid in conservation.

Metering and Analytics Come to the Water World

The water agencies will have to report monthly on usage, conservation and enforcement efforts. To meet those goals, many water agencies may adopt water analytics platforms for both enhanced customer information and better measurement and verification similar to what the electric industry has used in recent years.

Using water data, agencies can provide tailored efficiency tips to customers and compare their use to neighbors to push them towards further conservation. Data-driven analytics can also help segment customers to pinpoint who can benefit most from efficiency programs.

“Peer-to-peer comparison has a lot of potential,” says Ed Osann, senior water policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that it can cut about 5 percent without any further investment in water efficient technologies. One California startup that provides this software, WaterSmart, announced a new round of funding just one week after Governor Brown’s announcement.

Water utilities are also increasingly turning to smart water meters, says Osann. Like digital electric meters that have been rolled out more widely, smart water meters let customers see their usage in close to real-time rather than in a monthly or quarterly bill.

San Francisco is the largest city so far to invest in smart water meters at a cost of about $56 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Long Beach, Calif., city officials are using the digital meters selectively to record water usage in five-minute intervals, according to a report by NPR. The city is then using that data to leverage fines on those using too much water, like a local McDonalds.

Right Price for the Right Technology

The order calls for new rate structures along with a crackdown on offenders, which could make smart meters more attractive in some municipalities. Water suppliers also must develop rate structures that maximize water conservation and the governor has ordered the California Public Utilities Commission to take similar action with investor-owned water utilities.

The drought is not just hitting consumer’s wallets in terms of water bills. The Pacific Institute estimated that ratepayers shelled out $1.4 billion to procure electricity from elsewhere due to a shortfall of hydropower from 2011 through 2014.

Most Californians already pay for water based on volume and there are tiered rates, says Osann, but they are largely ineffective.

“In both the urban and agricultural space, part of the difficulty is finding pricing that sends a conservation signal,” says Osann. A 2014 report from the Pacific Institute found that smart water metering and an effective pricing structure could cut water use by up to 20 percent.

If rates are reformed, it could sweeten the payback for water-efficient appliances and other water-saving measures for the average person. The order calls for increasing rebate programs for water-efficient appliances, but the remainder of the cost still has to come from the homeowner.

Sewers are another area for rate reform to spur a larger uptake of water efficient technologies. Osann says that while most people pay for water by volume, many customers outside of large urban areas still have a flat rate for sewer. If customers are shopping for a new washing machine but don’t pay by volume for sewer, the payback would be twice as long as it would be for another consumer that pays volumetrically for water and sewer.

Moving more customers to volumetric sewer pricing should not be an insurmountable task in today’s data-driven world. In most cities, the water and sewer departments use the same set of data, but even if those are disparate data streams in some regions, they could be merged. “There’s no physical impediment to exchanging the data,” says Osann, “ it’s just institutional inertia.”

Making the Most of Non-Potable Water

For customers who may be facing increased sewer costs or irrigation restrictions, they might consider diverting gray water, which comes from sinks, laundry and bath, to meet some of their needs. That option could become more attractive with increasing regulations on lawns and how they can be watered. Fifty million square feet of lawns will be replaced and all new homes and buildings cannot irrigate with potable water that isn’t delivered by drip or microspray systems.

Lancaster, Calif., which already requires all new homes to be solar ready, announced last fall that all new homes will also have to have “recycle-ready” plumbing.

Existing homes can add in gray water recycling systems to reuse the water for irrigation, but those systems have been stymied in part by complex local regulations, according to Southern California Public Radio. It could get easier in the future, however, as the California Energy Commission has called for the acceleration of integrated on-site reuse systems for water.

It is not just California that is calling for more investment and research into water technologies. On Wednesday, a consortium of Texas universities also launched a statewide research program and commercialization lab that focuses on emerging water technologies.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

The number of charging stations in Utrecht has risen sharply over the past decade.

“People are buying more and more electric cars,” says Eerenberg, the alderman. City officials noticed a surge in such purchases in recent years, only to hear complaints from Utrechters that they then had to go through a long application process to have a charger installed where they could use it. Eerenberg, a computer scientist by training, is still working to unwind these knots. He realizes that the city has to go faster if it is to meet the Dutch government’s mandate for all new cars to be zero-emission in eight years.

The amount of energy being used to charge EVs in Utrecht has skyrocketed in recent years.

Although similar mandates to put more zero-emission vehicles on the road in New York and California failed in the past, the pressure for vehicle electrification is higher now. And Utrecht city officials want to get ahead of demand for greener transportation solutions. This is a city that just built a central underground parking garage for 12,500 bicycles and spent years digging up a freeway that ran through the center of town, replacing it with a canal in the name of clean air and healthy urban living.

A driving force in shaping these changes is Matthijs Kok, the city’s energy-transition manager. He took me on a tour—by bicycle, naturally—of Utrecht’s new green infrastructure, pointing to some recent additions, like a stationary battery designed to store solar energy from the many panels slated for installation at a local public housing development.

This map of Utrecht shows the city’s EV-charging infrastructure. Orange dots are the locations of existing charging stations; red dots denote charging stations under development. Green dots are possible sites for future charging stations.

“This is why we all do it,” Kok says, stepping away from his propped-up bike and pointing to a brick shed that houses a 400-kilowatt transformer. These transformers are the final link in the chain that runs from the power-generating plant to high-tension wires to medium-voltage substations to low-voltage transformers to people’s kitchens.

There are thousands of these transformers in a typical city. But if too many electric cars in one area need charging, transformers like this can easily become overloaded. Bidirectional charging promises to ease such problems.

Kok works with others in city government to compile data and create maps, dividing the city into neighborhoods. Each one is annotated with data on population, types of households, vehicles, and other data. Together with a contracted data-science group, and with input from ordinary citizens, they developed a policy-driven algorithm to help pick the best locations for new charging stations. The city also included incentives for deploying bidirectional chargers in its 10-year contracts with vehicle charge-station operators. So, in these chargers went.

Experts expect bidirectional charging to work particularly well for vehicles that are part of a fleet whose movements are predictable. In such cases, an operator can readily program when to charge and discharge a car’s battery.

We Drive Solar earns credit by sending battery power from its fleet to the local grid during times of peak demand and charges the cars’ batteries back up during off-peak hours. If it does that well, drivers don’t lose any range they might need when they pick up their cars. And these daily energy trades help to keep prices down for subscribers.

Encouraging car-sharing schemes like We Drive Solar appeals to Utrecht officials because of the struggle with parking—a chronic ailment common to most growing cities. A huge construction site near the Utrecht city center will soon add 10,000 new apartments. Additional housing is welcome, but 10,000 additional cars would not be. Planners want the ratio to be more like one car for every 10 households—and the amount of dedicated public parking in the new neighborhoods will reflect that goal.

This photograph shows four parked vehicles, each with the words \u201cWe Drive Solar\u201d prominently displayed, and each plugged into a charge point.Some of the cars available from We Drive Solar, including these Hyundai Ioniq 5s, are capable of bidirectional charging.We Drive Solar

Projections for the large-scale electrification of transportation in Europe are daunting. According to a Eurelectric/Deloitte report, there could be 50 million to 70 million electric vehicles in Europe by 2030, requiring several million new charging points, bidirectional or otherwise. Power-distribution grids will need hundreds of billions of euros in investment to support these new stations.

The morning before Eerenberg sat down with me at city hall to explain Utrecht’s charge-station planning algorithm, war broke out in Ukraine. Energy prices now strain many households to the breaking point. Gasoline has reached $6 a gallon (if not more) in some places in the United States. In Germany in mid-June, the driver of a modest VW Golf had to pay about €100 (more than $100) to fill the tank. In the U.K., utility bills shot up on average by more than 50 percent on the first of April.

The war upended energy policies across the European continent and around the world, focusing people’s attention on energy independence and security, and reinforcing policies already in motion, such as the creation of emission-free zones in city centers and the replacement of conventional cars with electric ones. How best to bring about the needed changes is often unclear, but modeling can help.

Nico Brinkel, who is working on his doctorate in Wilfried van Sark’s photovoltaics-integration lab at Utrecht University, focuses his models at the local level. In his calculations, he figures that, in and around Utrecht, low-voltage grid reinforcements cost about €17,000 per transformer and about €100,000 per kilometer of replacement cable. “If we are moving to a fully electrical system, if we’re adding a lot of wind energy, a lot of solar, a lot of heat pumps, a lot of electric vehicles…,” his voice trails off. “Our grid was not designed for this.”

But the electrical infrastructure will have to keep up. One of Brinkel’s studies suggests that if a good fraction of the EV chargers are bidirectional, such costs could be spread out in a more manageable way. “Ideally, I think it would be best if all of the new chargers were bidirectional,” he says. “The extra costs are not that high.”

Berg doesn’t need convincing. He has been thinking about what bidirectional charging offers the whole of the Netherlands. He figures that 1.5 million EVs with bidirectional capabilities—in a country of 8 million cars—would balance the national grid. “You could do anything with renewable energy then,” he says.

Seeing that his country is starting with just hundreds of cars capable of bidirectional charging, 1.5 million is a big number. But one day, the Dutch might actually get there.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “A Road Test for Vehicle-to-Grid Tech.”

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