Can the power grid handle electric vehicle charging?

As the adoption of electric cars, trucks and buses grows, many people wonder if the electric grid is up to the task of charging all these vehicles.

There are really two questions wrapped up in that thinking, differentiated by time scale: Can the grid handle all the electric vehicles (EVs) we have in the near term, like today and next year? And will the grid be able to handle all the electric vehicles we have as we move towards a highly electrified transport future, say 2040 or 2050? Let’s separate these two questions.

Will the electric grid be able to handle all the electric vehicles we will buy in the next few years?


The grid is well equipped to deliver power to electric vehicles at current adoption levels. More than 2.7 million plug-in hybrid, fully battery-electric cars and light trucks were sold in the United States by the end of 2021, with the majority of them still on the road. So far, car and light truck sales in 2022 have been strong, with battery electric sales hitting a new high, and bus and heavy truck sales are also expected to increase. Even in states where EV adoption is currently higher, the power demand of EVs is not an issue. For example, California achieved 16.3% light-duty electric vehicle sales (totaling 1.14 million electric vehicles on the road), and while California has struggled to maintain grid reliability in recent years, increased electricity demand from electric vehicle charging is not one of the issues.

Of course, when the next electric car rolls over a neighborhood block already full of electric cars, or a transit agency plans to roll out half a dozen electric buses to the depot, the local utility may need to upgrade. a local transformer or to add additional distribution wires. But have no doubt: there is currently enough power generation and transmission to meet the increased charging load of EV purchases over the next few years, especially if charged at times when other energy demands are lower (such as at night) or during periods of high renewable energy production.

I repeat this because the fossil fuel misinformation machine wants you to believe otherwise: there is enough electricity generation and transmission on our current electricity grid to charge all electric vehicles purchased over the next few years.

Will the network be able to handle all the electric vehicles we will have in the future?

Yes, if we prepare well.

The transition to a highly electrified future will not happen overnight. Even if, by magic, all new car and light truck sales were 100% electric tomorrow, it would take more than a decade for all cars on the road today to become 90% electric vehicles. That’s because vehicles are very durable goods — the average car or light truck stays on the road for more than 12 years, and some of them are on the road much longer than that. In a non-magical scenario, sales will increase to 100% electric vehicles by 2035 in order to meet state and federal greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2050. And in that case, we should closer to 100% electric on the road. cars by 2050.

So we have time to make sure the grid is ready, but we can’t waste the time we have.

We cannot accept an unreliable grid – not for EV charging or anything else! We need electric utilities and regional grid operators to invest in more power capacity and robust transmission and distribution infrastructure. Grid operators have begun planning in many places for increased electricity demand from vehicle electrification as well as appliances and other end uses, including the Midcontinent Grid Region (aka MISO), and all will have to up their game. We also need network operators to invest in network resilience, so that power outages have less impact and electricity can be restored more quickly in the event of an outage.

Additionally, we need grid operators to update their approach to grid management to be more dynamic to match an increasingly dynamic energy supply and demand paradigm. Historically, electric utilities could reliably predict the amount of electricity their customers would need over the course of a day well in advance, and daily needs were roughly constant over a season. particular of the year. Today, supply and demand are more dynamic throughout the day and day-to-day as we increasingly incorporate utility-scale renewable energy generation as well as distributed resources. behind the customer’s meter (eg rooftop solar, battery storage and electric vehicles).

With a dynamic approach to grid management, a 100% renewable electricity grid can accommodate a highly electrified future. The UCS analysis demonstrated this.

Indeed, EVs can support renewable energy integration and stable grid operation by exploiting EVs as a flexible load and, for EVs capable of exporting energy, as a source of electricity storage. .

An EV is a battery on wheels

An electric vehicle is not like your television, plugged into the wall and drawing energy in real time while it is in use. Rather, an electric vehicle’s battery stores energy for use, much like your wireless headphones or other battery-charged device. Most drivers have great flexibility in when they charge their EV battery, so charging can be done at times that are more convenient to the grid, such as midday when solar farms produce electricity at their maximum or at night when the network has spare capacity. In other words, the way electric vehicles use energy is more like charging your phone than running the fridge.

But it’s even better than that.

Imagine a hot summer day when the network is running at full capacity (or beyond) in the late afternoon. The electric vehicle parked in your driveway or the school bus stored at the bus depot could, if configured to do so, send the electricity stored in its battery back into a tense grid and help meet the needs of millions of people with fans, air conditioners, laptops and lights that need power during the day’s peak power demand. Even a few kilowatts of power, if provided by enough vehicles, would help a lot! This type of arrangement would not rely solely on the goodwill of drivers – utilities, network operators and third parties are working to create programs and marketplaces to incentivize drivers to contribute to this type of smart charging and export of electricity.

If you are not yet set up to export electricity to the grid, you may still be able to help. Newer EVs, like the Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T, come with power outlets installed on the truck. Without any additional configuration, one of these vehicles could be used to power an appliance or tool at home or on a jobsite to offset the stress the appliance would otherwise place on the grid.

Electric vehicles can also build local resilience during outages, providing a lifeline for backup power if the wider grid fails. This time, imagine that an ice storm, hurricane, or public safety power outage has knocked out the electricity in your area. You are out of immediate danger, but you do not have the power to keep hot/cold, to refrigerate perishable foods and medicines, etc. An electric vehicle configured to export its stored energy could power a home or shelter to bridge the time until power can be restored.

These are just a few examples of how electric vehicles can support and be supported by the grid. This type of managed charging and vehicle-grid integration is not a silver bullet. Ideally, every EV driver or fleet operator will engage in grid integration in some way, but not everyone needs to be very sophisticated about it. We need a variety of tools and programs that drivers can choose from so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from vehicle-network integration, while using their vehicle for the vehicle’s primary purpose: transportation. .

We can meet our future needs, but we must also reduce demand

I find all of the vehicle grid elements very interesting and exciting (if you can’t tell), but I want to offer one final, broader perspective.

The best electrical load is the avoided load, the load that you don’t add to the grid in the first place.

For transportation, a big part of avoiding some of the predicted increase in electrical load from transportation is reducing the total number of miles we travel. The idea is to put in place solutions that allow us to reduce the mileage of the cars that drive us and the trucks that bring us our goods – or better yet, to have fewer cars and trucks – so that we need less energy for transportation. That’s why investments in public transit services and active transportation infrastructure, along with less automobile-centric urban planning, are important strategies to meet our transportation energy needs.

This vision of a smarter, cleaner transport future will also reduce climate and health-damaging pollution from transport, and that future would not just be a nice thing to have. We to have to make it a reality if we are to escape the worst effects of climate change and reduce the health harms of transport that affect the most polluted communities.

Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.
By Samantha Houston, Senior Vehicle Analyst

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