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Connecting EVs to Affordability

Updated: Jan 29

Fermata Energy’s Melissa Chan spearheads new vehicle-to-grid (V2G) programs to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) by everyone

Nissan Leafs charging circa 2016-17 at Nissan's Technical Centre Europe, one of the first V2G installations in the UK. Photo courtesy of Nissan Motor Corp.

As a sophomore at Bishop Fenwick High School, Peabody, Mass. in the early 1990s, Melissa Chan was asked to read select chapters of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book about the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, particularly DDT.


Chan recalls thinking, "Wow, what are we (the U.S.) doing? What are the choices we're making, and what role do I have as a person (in helping ensure the responsible use of chemistry by our country)?"


She got her answer a few weeks later when a former Bishop Fenwick student returned to campus to discuss her college studies in chemical engineering.


“I figured that chemical engineering must be the way to understand the complexities of chemistry, and that that’s what I should study in college,” recalls Chan.


Melissa Chan, director of grid solutions and strategic partnerships, Fermata Energy
Broadening the Appeal of V2G

Today, as the director of grid solutions and strategic partnerships at Fermata Energy, Charlottesville, Va., Chan is still using engineering to help reduce the impact of human activity on the environment. She’s focused on reducing the cost of EV ownership by helping develop and commercialize technology known as Vehicle to Everything (V2X), which includes Vehicle to Grid (V2G) and Vehicle to Home (V2H).


V2G technology, which works in tandem with EV charging infrastructure, enables EVs to not only draw power from the electric grid to charge their batteries but also deliver electricity back to the grid. Today, most EVs are unidirectional; i.e., they can only pull power from the grid. Bidirectional EVs, however, can also return electricity to the grid, which can help ease electrical loads on the grid when intermittent sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar are waning.


The bidirectional software platform that Chan is working on at Fermata Energy allows EV owners to earn money by selling excess energy stored in their vehicle’s battery back to the grid, or to use it to help power their own building, thereby reducing their utility bills. It can also reduce the need for expensive grid infrastructure upgrades by using EV batteries as a distributed energy resource.


“I'm very invested in making it possible for someone who otherwise would not be able to afford an electric vehicle to get into one at a very low cost,” Chan explains. “I’ve been working on business models that would use the income from vehicle-to-grid to make EVs affordable on a larger scale.”


Making the U.S. Home

Chan was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the daughter of Chinese immigrants forced as children to flee China by boat for Hong Kong—a British colony at the time—after World War II. Her parents, an engineer trained in Quebec and a nurse schooled in London, met in

Chan got her first look at North America in Montreal, Quebec, where her parents married and started a family. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

London but eventually joined forces in Quebec where they married and added Melissa to their roster. Learning to speak French and get along in a French-speaking province, however, proved quite challenging for the Chans, inspiring them to move to the U.S. when Melissa was just three. After a brief stay in Cincinnati, Ohio, they settled in Boston, eventually buying a home in Marblehead, Mass.


“It was a rather strange time for us,” says Chan. “My parents had grown up in Hong Kong after World War II so we were all experiencing this new world (of U.S. culture) at the same time.”


Breaking Through

As long as Chan can remember, engineering has been a part of the things she’s enjoyed doing, even though she’s never really thought of it in those terms.


Photo courtesy of Pexels.

“I always liked building things and figuring things out,” she says, “whether that was learning how to make a pair of pants or solve a crossword puzzle.”


In her early years, however, Chan’s ability to enunciate English words was not keeping pace with her curiosity, a function perhaps of living in a household where no one spoke English as a native language.


Fortunately, her third-grade teacher, Ms. Sarantopolous, spotted the problem—and Chan’s intellectual potential—and immediately arranged for her to receive speech therapy. It would change the trajectory of Chan’s life.


“My teacher also sent me to have an IQ test that identified me for special programs and special attention that I don't think I would have had access to otherwise,” she adds.


Embracing Engineering

During high school, Chan kept a low profile regarding her STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) aptitude, preferring to concentrate on the fine arts. She also discovered, much to her classmates’ annoyance, that she didn’t have to study very hard to do well academically.


“I did well in advanced classes such as calculus, but it just wasn’t an interest I had,” Chan says. “I figured I was going to be an architect or a painter.”

Carnegie Mellon University College of Fine Arts building. Photo courtesy of Persage, Wikimedia Commons

Initially, she was accepted into Carnegie Mellon’s College of Fine Art architecture program. A month before freshman orientation, however, and perhaps inspired by what she’d learned about the vulnerability of the environment, she changed her major to chemical engineering.


After initially struggling— “I was shocked to learn how much harder college coursework was than high school”—Chan completed her bachelor’s degree in 2000 with a double major: chemical engineering, and

engineering and public policy, a study of the impact of engineering on the real world.


Pursuing Energy Technology Innovation

At the time, however, jobs focused on climate change were hard to come by. Chan accepted a program analyst job with the Department of Energy (DoE)’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which was focused on “clean coal,” or systems and technologies that seek to mitigate the health and environmental impacts of burning coal for energy.

Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, Mass.

Chan was not keen on coal pollution mitigation, but DoE’s continuing education program allowed her to take classes toward a doctorate in engineering and public policy, a degree she earned from Carnegie Mellon in 2008. But instead of returning to the DoE, Chan pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School, which was ramping up its research on energy technology innovation.


Eventually, however, she left academia to rejoin “the real world” where she worked, through a series of start-ups and consultancies, as an advisor to utilities and other organizations focused on using technology to create a smarter, greener grid.


Finding Fermata Energy

Amid the pandemic, Chan found herself at a professional crossroads. The co-founder of her latest startup had decided to change directions, forcing her to re-evaluate her own career path.

“Among the problems I’d found most interesting as a consultant,” she recalls, “was fleet electrification; i.e., how to electrify even the smallest fleet of cars or trucks in the fastest, most cost-effective way. I decided that the only way for electrification to pencil out was to use batteries on board the vehicles to do something else.”


Chan did not know much about V2G at the time, but she envisioned a scenario where a two-truck fleet could charge one truck from the grid while sharing electricity from the other truck’s battery with the grid, resulting in a lower net usage for the charging site.

Eventually, a friend put her in touch with Fermata Energy, who was also starting to explore similar concepts at the time. She has been with the company since August 2021.


Paying Back Consumers

Today, most V2G programs are collaborations between a utility or grid operator and EV fleet owners such school bus companies, delivery services or public transportation companies. Participation in such programs requires (1) vehicles capable of bidirectional charging, (2) a bidirectional charger such as Fermata’s FE-20 to connect the vehicle to the grid, and (3) software that can manage and optimize the charging and discharging of a vehicle’s battery.


V2G makes sense for fleet owners who can invest in bidirectional charging infrastructure and have the vehicle volume to contribute significant energy to the grid. Unfortunately, few consumers have access to V2G program, a situation Chan is trying to change.

Chan is increasingly involved in demonstrations of Fermata's bidrectional charging technology such as this recent product launch at Newlab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Steven Lee photo.

“I’ve been working on getting V2G technology into apartment buildings which typically have three-phase, 480-volt electrical service,” she explains. “Instead of allowing every tenant to own and charge their own EV (which could cause a building’s electricity load to rise dramatically), what if we had a fleet of V2G-capable EVs shared among the apartment’s tenants? We could use electricity from these EVs to reduce peak demand for the building while allowing the fleet owner to earn money for electricity flowing back to the grid.”


Driving Progress

At Fermata Energy, Chan is also spearheading a V2G program with the New Hampshire Electricity Co-op (NHEC) at Plymouth State University to demonstrate how V2G revenue can help reduce the cost of EV ownership or reduce electricity costs for buildings. The program uses a concept called the transactive energy rate (TER) to forecast hour-by-hour energy costs for NHEC rate payers one day in advance. TER alerts sent to bidirectional chargers would let consumers know the best times to charge (when rates are low) or discharge (when rates are high) their vehicle battery, and when to use the vehicle for routine transportation tasks.


Defining New Financing Models

Perhaps the concept that gets Chan most excited these days, however, is figuring out how to use V2G revenue to make it affordable for low-income families to own, drive and insure an EV.


“Fermata Energy is currently working on a project in Boston where V2G revenue can help finance the cost of leasing a car and make it available for low-income drivers at the cost of $100 a month,” she shares.


Running a Busy Life

Mornings begin early in the 2-bedroom home that Chan shares in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and several potted cacti. Like most Fermata Energy employees, she works remotely.


“I made a resolution two years ago to get out of the house for at least a half hour every day, and I haven’t broken that promise yet,” she says. In most cases, “out of the house” involves a four or five-mile run along the nearby Charles River.

Rowers are a frequent site for runners along the Charles River in Cambridge. Brooks McKinney photo

Breakfast is usually either toast or cottage cheese supplemented with a steady stream of tea. Chan’s workdays are filled with Google Meets, operational calls with partners, and appearances (either remote or in-person) on industry panels to discuss the latest progress in bringing V2G to the masses.


Most days she takes a break around 6 p.m., goes for a walk, and then grabs a casual dinner with her husband. After dinner she tries to get ahead of e-mail for the next day, she explains, “because it just never stops.”


Solving the Future

When Chan thinks about the future of V2G, she’s proud of how far she and Fermata Energy have come in helping develop and commercialize the market. She recognizes, however, that much work remains to “mainstream” the technology to make EV ownership cost-effective for more people, and to allow utilities to integrate EVs routinely to help stabilize and add resilience to the grid.


“We’re still a small company,” she notes, “with all of us doing many things that won’t be in our job description in the future. It’s fun figuring out the problems and working with people to solve them.”

In that regard, Chan advises, picking the right team is essential, because there’s really no room for egos getting in the way of making her team successful.


“On my team, you don’t need to be right, you just need to solve the problem.”


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If someone in your organization is doing remarkable work modernizing the nation’s water, power, transportation or telecommunications infrastructure, I’d love to profile that person on this blog. Please send your ideas to brooks@personsofinfrastructure.com. Thanks.

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