As the sun sets across the Netherlands, streetlights twinkle on, town by town. But it’s not in lockstep: some city managers can set their lights to respond to local sunset time or a schedule of their own or they can control individual lights for local events. That’s because in 2017 those cities adopted a smart grid software-powered service built by Dutch public utility Alliander that may be the first open smart grid platform in everyday use.

Before, these cities could only operate their lights collectively because they used ripple control technology, a widespread control method that sends a pulse over the grid. While smarter control of streetlights may be handy for cities and save them some energy and cash, Alliander has also re-used the platform to manage a growing number of additional services and, earlier this month, placed it under the umbrella of LF Energy, part of the Linux Foundation.

“Utilities want to get rid of the black box,” says Shuli Goodman, executive director of LF Energy. Alliander started developing its own black box in 2013 but took it open source in 2015 thanks to lobbying by Sander Jansen, a data architect there. 

“What I saw was the big [grid software] vendors had their own roadmap, their own product managers, their own vision and it doesn't always align with what clients want,” Jansen recalls. Developing their own solution gave Alliander more options and prevented it from being stuck with any one provider’s service. Now that it is open source, it also allows third parties to develop their own uses for the platform.

So far, most of the outside interest has been in smart meters, Jansen says. Other projects focus on more traditional grid management concerns such as distribution automation and transmission. Potential future projects include interfacing with municipal charging stations for electric cars.

The electricity grid’s relationship to open source actually dates back to 1997, if not before, when some North American utilities and research organizations used it to simulate local grid management scenarios. Academics also developed their own open source research tools, such as the 2005 open source grid tool called PSAT, developed by Federico Milano at University College in Dublin, Ireland. 

But there wasn’t much collaboration between academia and utilities, Milano says: “The [electric utility] community is very closed and not willing to help at all except for some, few individuals. The problem is [the people who use] open source tools are PhD students… Then, when they are hired by some company, they are forced to use some commercial software tool and do not have time to spare to contribute to the community with their code.”

Today, most major transmission and system operators still use commercial software, often from companies such as Siemens and ABB, with custom modifications. Utilities must focus heavily on security, to ensure reliable electricity for hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

But changes in electricity supply may be favoring smarter grids and a more software-focused approach. As energy grids take on more intermittent sources of power, such as solar and wind, it can get harder for ripple control technology to send a reliable signal across the whole grid, Jansen says.

Other changes may also favor more openness, Milano says: “If power system ‘granularity’ is going to increase (e.g., grid-connected microgrids, smart building, aggregators, etc.), then there will be many small companies that will get into the power business from scratch and some of them might be attracted by the ‘open source software’ model.”

Open/Close is a series of stories by Lucas Laursen for IEEE Spectrum that explores how openness and technology interact. The open source movement emerged from software, but has spread in many directions since, to hardware-focused Fab Labs and even voting booths. Openness offers plenty of tempting benefits: oversight by the crowd, preventing duplication of effort, and the ability to empower vulnerable people. But it also results in innumerable software forks, doesn’t always attract a critical mass of users, and can threaten privacy. This series will address how the tensions between open and closed technology are playing out in the engineering world.

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.”

Keep Reading ↓Show less