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In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the Japanese government embarked upon the largest deregulation of any electricity market worldwide. Through their restructuring they not only want to push away from nuclear energy, but also to promote renewable energy and help modernize the Japanese electric grid by introducing competitive services and flexible resources.

The frequency of earthquakes, and the tsunamis they often trigger, in the Japanese archipelago has been a key factor behind the decision to move away from hazardous nuclear power plants. However, creating the physical space for new generation capacity to make up the shortfall is also a problem in the densely populated Asia-Pacific nation. So instead of physical power plants, Japan is launching a number of virtual power plants projects that it hopes will be the answer to its unique electricity challenges.

On the December 11th, last week, US based artificial intelligence-driven energy storage service provider Stem Inc, announced a partnership with large Japanese sogo shosha (general trading conglomerate) Mitsui & Co. Endorsed by the Ministry of Energy, Trade and Infrastructure (METI), the pair intends to build one of the first aggregated fleets of industrial customer-sited energy storage operating in Japan.

This virtual power plant will initially be deployed across more than 750 kWh at multiple sites to form a flexible and fast-responding distributed resource. This pilot will help guide Japan’s plans to develop aggregated demand response resources as flexible capacity, in order to manage the variability from increased renewable energy resources on the grid. John Carrington, CEO of Stem, claiming at the launch that, “Japan is poised to dramatically scale its demand response market.”

For this deployment, Stem will operate multiple sites outside of Tokyo for Mitsui and host customers, by applying its Athena artificial intelligence software. The first system is located at the Shinwa Kankyo Recycling Center in Yoshikawa City, Saitama Prefecture, in the densely populated and power hungry service territory of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Two days later, on December 13th, TEPCO announced another project with significant energy storage and potential. In partnership with Japanese automotive giant Nissan, TEPCO will launch a study in Japan to determine how electric vehicles (EVs) can help stabilize power grid demand in a similar way to virtual power plants.

“Renewable energy will be more widely used in the future as part of the shift toward a low-carbon society. To use renewable energy in a stable and effective manner, virtual power plants are being developed to integrate and control dispersed energy resources on the customer side,” said a Nissan spokesperson. “Electric vehicles have the potential to be one of these virtual power resources, through the control of charging and discharging in cooperation with grid operators.”

The two companies have begun a pilot study using a group of TEPCO employees driving the Nissan e-NV200 electrical commercial van and Nissan employees using the 100% electric Nissan LEAF. Both vehicles make use of Nissan’s telematics system, a service that lets electric vehicle owners remotely monitor their car’s condition and control charging via a smartphone app.

TEPCO will notify project participants of time periods when power grid demand is low, and offer incentives to participants who charge their EV during that time. The project will examine the degree to which vehicle owners respond by changing their charging times, helping smooth out power demand fluctuations. The information collected will help determine the most effective use of electric cars to help stabilize grid demand.

The project builds upon research by Dr Kotub Uddin, with colleagues from the Energy and Electrical Systems group of University of Warwick’s manufacturing department (WMG), in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover in the UK. Covered in our June 2017 article: New Vehicle-to-Grid Research Shows Cars Can Power Buildings.

“[They] demonstrated that vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology can be intelligently utilised to take enough energy from idle EV batteries to be pumped into the grid and power buildings, all without damaging the [EV] batteries,” we wrote. “This new research into the potential of V2G conclusively showed that it could even improve vehicle battery life by around 10% over a year.”

It seems inevitable that EVs will dominate our automotive future, and if so they represent energy storage capacity on an unprecedented scale. There are almost 70 million vehicles currently registered in Japan for example, and while it would take some time for EV adoption to reach significant levels, the numbers needed for a VPP are not that high.

It take just 300,000 EV batteries within a virtual power plant in order to supply as much electricity as a nuclear reactor does. The power from the VPP system could be released instantly to meet demand and would offer dynamic flexibility on a scale never seen before.

“Japan is known for creating futuristic technologies that benefit consumers and are leading to a sustainable society,” said a Mitsui & Co. spokesperson during the Stem announcement. If these trials develop as planned, Japan may soon be showcasing the true power of virtual power plants and energy storage to the world.

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