Campus parking lots become 'living labs' for electric car research
Engineering professor Rajit Gadh at one of his 'living lab' research sites in a UCLA parking lot.
When we think of a lab, we might imagine scientists in white coats and goggles pouring chemicals into vats or technicians in clean suits putting together microchips. Hear the words "living lab," and we might imagine researchers viewing tiny creatures under microscopes in a biological sciences research building. Professsor Rajit Gadh’s living lab, however, is in five UCLA parking lots, charging electric vehicles (EVs) and sending data back to UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center
(SMERC), which Gadh directs. His research is paving the way for an expanding world of EVs.
On a recent visit to Level 4 of Parking Structure 9, Gadh, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, pointed out a box marked "EVSmartPlug" hanging from a wall. Two EVs are attached via thick electric cables. The box is a smart communications and control device, part of the WINSmartEVNetwork
, and it is controlled by a mobile app developed by SMERC.
"This mobile app shows the system informing the user as to how many spots are available in Parking Lot 9," Gadh said. "It says there is a total of eight parking outlets and four available. We monitor the energy consumption on this box periodically and send the data back to the control center." Among the data collected are information on the particular vehicles being charged — one may require 12 amperes of power, while another needs 20 amperes — as well as the time of day drivers arrive and leave, information that could help electric grid operators determine variable pricing based on demand.
The lab also incorporates UCLA’s Microgrid Integration system, which aims to make the smart grid a two-way street: Both the EV driver and the grid operator will be participants in how the electricity is consumed. Electrical energy is being collected via rooftop solar panels and cogeneration and stored in batteries in the SMERC lab that can be dispatched to EVs plugged into the charging system. But EVs can also provide energy back into the system.
"One of the experiments that we are starting to run right now," Gadh said, "is called ‘vehicle-to-grid,’" in which energy from the storage batteries could go back to power companies' grids during larger-scale energy shortages. Gadh and his research team are also using the data they're collecting to develop sophisticated algorithms for computer programs that would determine an optimized schedule for charging for an individual's vehicle, based on factors like that individual's user profile and the total number of drivers who use a charging station each day of the the week. To keep the entire system stable, Gadh and his researchers have put a "big box" at parking lot 8 that, at 220 volts/120 amps, makes it their highest capacity station. Plans are for this box, and lower-power adaptations of it, to serve as a master template. "We literally talk to the car, and we tell the car, ‘You can now draw so many amps,'" Gadh said.
But it’s not all algorithms and programming, he pointed out. The human factor comes into play.
"What happens is that human beings do things that are unpredictable," he said. A UCLA employee with an EV, for instance, may usually plug his vehicle in for charging before he starts work at 8 a.m. and unplug it when he leaves at 5 p.m., but he isn’t always going to follow that exact schedule. For this, Gadh and his team have developed a mobile app to allow users to manually manage how and when their EV is being charged.
The researchers plan to continue to expand their current WINSmartEV infrastructure of EV charging stations in UCLA parking lots 2, 3, 8 and 9, along with four stations at the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Additional stations are on the way in Santa Monica. If you have an EV and would like to participate in the Living Lab, please contact Gadh at email@example.com