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HKS Postdoc Christine Gschwendtner Talks Electrical Vehicle Charging Research at Harvard-China Project Presentation

The Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment is a partnership between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Chinese universities.
The Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment is a partnership between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Chinese universities. By Julian J. Giordano
By Stella M. Nakada and Cam N. Srivastava, Contributing Writers

Christine Gschwendtner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke about strategies to handle strain on electrical grids from increased electric vehicle use in a presentation at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Wednesday afternoon.

The Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment, a SEAS research partnership with Chinese universities, hosted the event as part of a series of research seminars highlighting the work of postdoctoral scholars involved in environmental science.

As electric vehicle usage becomes more widespread, many vehicles being charged at the same time could overwhelm electricity systems, Gschwendtner said, leading to “higher peak demands.”

To combat charging surges, environmental scientists, urban planners, and policymakers have suggested electricity pricing arrangements that bill electric vehicle users higher rates during busy periods.

“Why would people want to change their charging behavior?” Gschwendtner said. “Most likely, we need to give them financial incentives.”

But existing models to “reduce the peak” and eliminate mass charging typically fail to factor in human behavior, Gschwendtner said.

Gschwendtner instead proposed a model that takes into account “social behavior,” such as where and when people prefer to charge their vehicles. She used agent-based modeling, a computer simulation of peoples’ behavior in space and time, to account for whether people charge at home, at work, or at public charging stations, and how likely they are to be influenced by financial incentives.

“People have habits, they don’t really want to have the inconvenience of charging at a different time,” Gschwendtner said. “We need to focus more on representing the demand side in a more realistic way.”

Gschwendtner’s model tests ways to incentivize low-voltage charging over long periods, which she said is the most effective way to mitigate the strain on the electrical grid as a result of mass charging.

“Slow and low is the way to go,” she said.

In an interview following the event, Gschwendtner said that her model synthesizes social sciences and data analysis to provide a more comprehensive picture of charging behavior.

She said discussions regarding electric vehicle charging need to facilitate collaboration between the “technical people and the social people.”

“We need to place more emphasis on this,” Gschwendtner said. “Academia unfortunately still has these silos of people working from the different disciplines on similar things, and it would be so beneficial if we bridge those disciplines more.”

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