Microgrid Labs Solves the Puzzle of Fleet Electrification

April 22, 2020

Buying a vehicle can be complicated.

What’s the budget? Where’s it going to be driven? How many passengers? What kind of fuel?

Now take those questions, and multiply them by a factor of a hundred or a thousand, and you can imagine the challenges of fleet electrification.

Fleet electrification refers to converting light-, medium- and heavy-duty fleet vehicles from gas to electricity, and it’s already started to happen. About a third of the 70,000 transit buses in the United States are operated by agencies that have pledged to go electric.

Those pledges are being implemented now from Maine to California, with some timelines as tight as ten years. But it’s not going to be a simple transition.

Electric vehicle (EV) technology itself is still developing at a rapid pace, with new forms of charging infrastructure and even basic battery technologies coming out every year.

With EV technology rapidly evolving, how do fleet managers plan this transition and develop a roadmap for implementation?

Microgrid Labs wants to make those decisions easier. The company specializes in software for fleet electrification and microgrid development, and is now a part of the Shell GameChanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL (GCxN) program.

Microgrid Labs has been at the cutting edge of the changing grid since its founding. Power systems engineer Narayanan Sankar worked on power systems and automation all over the world for Siemens, before co-founding a microgrid software consultancy in 2015.

Over the past four years, the company has worked on several microgrid projects for hospitals, university campuses, cities, business parks, and multiple U.S. Army bases in California.

Over the course of those projects, the Microgrid Labs team began to see the impacts EVs will have on the grid, including the quickly growing demand for fleet electrification.

A new idea was born, and this led to the development of its fleet electrification software platform in partnership with U.C. Berkeley, with initial funding from the National Science Foundation. The team named it EVOPT.

Fleet Electrification is A Giant Puzzle

“Fleet electrification planning is very complex because so many variables affect the design. At the high level, there are three dimensions to this problem: the battery in the vehicle, the charging infrastructure, and the energy infrastructure,” said Sankar.

Microgrid Labs began building EVOPT in 2018. Writing the software was like putting together a giant puzzle, fitting together their own code with transportation modeling tools developed by researchers at U.C. Berkeley.

During the customer discovery process, Microgrid Labs team discovered that the key missing piece in the puzzle was vehicle simulation software required for vehicle battery sizing. The MGL team was in luck: a working tool happened to be in development at NREL, by transportation engineers working for the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences.

That tool, FASTSIM, could provide the required functionality to EVOPT.

The Microgrid Labs team applied to GCxN and was accepted in 2020. This provided the funding and resources to further develop FASTSIM and integrate the modeling package into the EVOPT platform.

Its project over the next 18 months will be to build out a comprehensive version of the NREL tool to help fleet managers make precise decisions about both which vehicles to purchase, and the charging infrastructure required to support them.

“There are several companies in the market offering high-level feasibility studies to evaluate benefits of fleet electrification and identify vehicles that can be electrified,” said Namit Singh, Ph.D., co-founder of Microgrid Labs. “EVOPT can do that as well, and has the capability to do very detailed technical as well as financial analysis that can be used for implementation-level design.”

Two Big Chunks of the Puzzle: Planning and Operations

One of the main challenges in fleet electrification is in the planning side: arriving at the optimum solution that will minimize investments, meet operational requirements, and eliminate adverse impacts on the electrical network.

“EVOPT-Planner addresses these requirements and helps right-size the vehicle batteries, the charging infrastructure and the energy infrastructure,” said Singh.

As a company, Microgrid Labs is going beyond just the planning stages and already developing complimentary software for once the system gets going, called EVOPT-Controller.

“EVOPT-Controller is our operation version, with real-time optimization and dynamic scheduling,” Singh said.

“The Controller is used as a charging-station management system to manage the charging infrastructure in real time. This allows fleet operators to maintain their schedule and charge their electric fleet at the lowest cost,” said Singh.

On Stage at the Industry Growth Forum

Microgrid Labs will be pitching to a panel of judges at this year’s NREL Industry Growth Forum, to be held virtually April 29-30.

One of 40 companies selected from a pool of more than 150, Namit Singh will be presenting for Microgrid Labs as part of the Early Stage panel on April 29.

According to Singh, the company’s work now in both microgrid planning and vehicle electrification is much in demand, and there is an immediate industry need for combining vehicle electrification and microgrids.

The team anticipates that this work will further evolve into community- and city-level microgrids, integrating renewable generation and providing resiliency.

Learn more about Microgrid Labs at its website.