Auto Tech

BMW paying electric car owners to delay charging in Bay Area

Carmaker has teamed up with Pacific Gas & Electric to curb power grid demand by giving i3 drivers gift cards if they charge at off-peak hours.

A BMW i3 charging. Tim Stevens/CNET

With more and more plug-in cars hitting the roads, there's been growing concern over the strain these vehicles will have on the nation's overtaxed power grid. BMW thinks it may have a solution in California.

The German automaker has partnered with utility Pacific Gas & Electric for an 18-month pilot program in the San Francisco Bay Area that's just getting underway. The trial, dubbed BMW iChargeForward, gives $1,540 in gift cards to 100 owners of i3 hatchbacks to charge their vehicles during off-peak times.

Most automakers' electric vehicles already include app-based timer functions to allow owners to charge their vehicles during less-costly off-peak hours (read: overnight), but iChargeForward is unique in a couple of key ways.

The so-called "demand response program," which runs from now through December 2016, involves the 100 car owners giving BMW the ability to remotely manage the in-home charging of their i3 hatchbacks. The automaker can delay charging of certain vehicles by up to an hour depending on demand information provided by PG&E.

Participating i3 owners can track the value of the incentive, as well as temporarily opt out of the program using a phone app if their charging needs are more pressing.

With a growing number of electric vehicles plugging in to America's power grid, a program like iChargeForward is unlikely to singlehandedly solve peak-time power demand problems. However, if the trial is successful, it could become part of a network of solutions put forth by automakers, energy companies and EV owners themselves.

According to Bloomberg, around 400 BMW i3 owners applied to take part in the program. The 100 selected participants each receive $1,000 gift cards upfront and can earn a second gift card worth up to $540 upon successful completion of the program.

As part of the trial, the BMW Group Technology Office in Mountain View, California has also taken a large cache of used lithium-ion batteries previously used to power Mini E hatchbacks to create a stationary energy storage unit. The solar-augmented storage will charge in off-peak hours, then push power back into the grid upon request during peak demand times. PG&E will pay BMW for the energy it returns to the grid.

"If successful, the pilot program could pave the way for significant utility payments that could stimulate further customer purchases of electric vehicles," PG&E said in a statement.