Meet the Little-Known Inventor of Vehicle-to-Grid Tech. It is Not a Mere Fad

Under the radar, Willett Kempton is one of the most-cited researchers in EVs

Until the middle of the decade, electric vehicles will cost more on average than combustion. So to attract buyers beyond first-movers, automakers have resorted to sales gimmicks. Among them has been this notional argument: If you have the right technology, you can earn extra dollars by selling the charge in your battery back to the grid. This idea, which goes by the nickname vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, is often touted by EV evangelists who cleverly point out that people’s cars just sit around in driveways and parking lots most of the time.

The result has not been a stampede to showrooms, as most ordinary motorists hold off for big, promised sticker price drops in the middle of the decade when battery technology improves. The theory of a collective fortune to be earned by vehicle-owners, all hooked up to a hungry grid while they obliviously work or sleep, has seemed to just sit there in the annals of hifalutin hypotheses.

Yet it turns out that V2G is no faddish notion, but a term going back to a paper about a quarter century ago. Its inventor, a little-known University of Delaware professor named Willett Kempton, is armed with a fistful of patents for his idea. And Nuvve, a company he co-founded that went public in a Spac in March, saw its share price soar as much as 56% yesterday before ending the day up 30.9%.

Nuvve is part of a groundswell of businesses seeking to prod EVs into the mainstream by seizing on one of their main sticking points — how to quickly charge up. In a niche play, Nuvve’s strategy is to go after public and school bus fleets by offering attractive financing terms. To that end, Nuvve yesterday announced a $750 million tie-up with Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. With most municipalities and school districts strapped for cash but increasingly pushed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Nuvve offers a more or less turnkey package in which it finances the cost of a charging hub, including V2G technology. The municipality or school district pays out what it normally would if it were running diesel buses, and through the V2G can defray the cost of the electric buses, which go up to $300,000, three times the price of conventional buses. “The fee is cost neutral,” Nuvve CEO Gregory Poilasne told me.

The technology could play a larger role, too. As EVs come increasingly onto the market into the 2030s and beyond, they will place increasing stress on the grid, requiring that something be done to meet the demand for electricity. The often-discussed solution is vast deployment of solar and wind generation, requiring an equally vast buildout of batteries. But Kempton told me that, if 100% of the projected EV fleet plugs into a V2G system, “you don’t need any more storage” — the batteries contained in the vehicles would manage what the solar and wind produces.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kempton, an anthropologist by training, was cogitating on the problem of climate change. The talk of the times was energy efficiency, but Kempton became convinced that that was not going to tackle the scale of the building crisis. That led to the thought that, if solar and wind could get carbon entirely out of the generation of electricity, the better solution than efficiency, there needed to be batteries to store the energy. But how?

About this time, Kempton attended an EV conference. Though all-but forgotten now, Honda, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota had all announced plans to market EVs in the late 1990s. GM had its EV1. While listening to a flurry of talks and conversations about electrics, “A light bulb literally went off,” Kempton said. “‘Oh my God, there’s the battery I’ve been looking for, but a lot bigger.’” He had conjured up V2G — an aggregation of individuals, all their batteries linked into a giant whole, like a dispersed power plant.

What you had to do was figure out how to do the linking. The vehicle and the grid needed to hear each other — to have a conversation, one telling the other what it had, and the other what it needed. When a vehicle moved from one place to the other, it might be entering another utility’s jurisdiction, and the various systems need to recognize that. And the system needed the capacity to track a lot of cars.

In 1997, Kempton and a University of Delaware economist co-authored a paper that laid out the basics of V2G as we know it today. His subsequent papers became anchors of the new field — two in 2005 were cited 2,421 and 2,307 times, making him one of the most-referenced researchers in EVs.

In 2009, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the transmission of electricity across state lines, said it supported Kempton’s idea, the New York Times reported. Four years later, he sold his first electricity to the grid from his perch at the university.

Last month, Volkswagen announced that all its EVs would be V2G-enabled. It’s not clear what technology VW is using, but Nuvve suggests that such activity falls under its patents. “Patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office confer upon the patent holder the right to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention throughout the United States, as well as the right to prevent others from importing the invention into the United States,” said Steve Moran, Nuuve’s chief legal officer. “We will assiduously protect and enhance our IP.”

I asked VW whether it thought it was violating Nuvve’s patents. A spokesman sought comment from his bosses in Germany but did not come back with an answer.

Kempton told me that the future isn’t everyone hooking up to a V2G system — 100% of the fleet won’t participate. But there will be sufficient numbers to manage the buildout of renewable energy, even if solar and wind serve most or all of energy demand, he said. “It’s not just a little thing,” he said of his invention. “It’s huge.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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