Can the Current Electric Grid Support the Growing Demand for EVs?
The economic and environmental benefits of going electric are no longer a question. It’s very clear how a major shift away from internal combustion engine vehicles can be imperative in the battle against climate change. Instead, the primary question in this movement has pivoted to how will we power so many electric vehicles? Along with the lack of sufficient charging stations across the country to support a major increase in EV use, whether or not the electric grid could support this demand needs to be considered and further explored.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), an average American household uses about 29 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day to power their home. The is roughly the same amount of electricity that would power an electric vehicle for 100 miles.
It is projected that, with the increasing demand for EVs year over year, energy consumption across the country could go up nearly 40 percent by 2050. To support this transition, states will have to reevaluate their current capacities and consider whether grid expansion, increasing power production, introduction of more extensive sustainable power sources or purchasing electricity from other states would be viable solutions.
The history of the electric grid
What began as just a single power plant in lower Manhattan connected to a handful of homes and businesses, is now comprised of 7,700 power plants, 3,300 utilities and over 2.7 million miles of distribution lines powering hundreds of millions of private homes and businesses. In regard to how this energy is generated, the EIA states that 60 percent comes from the burning of fossil fuels, 20 percent from nuclear power and another 20 percent from renewable sources.
In 2020, 3.8 trillion kWh of electricity was consumed in the US, 13 times greater than the total amount consumed in 1950. Of this amount, 38.9% and 34.8% of the electricity sales are attributed to residential and commercial sectors, respectively, with a mere 0.2% going to transportation.
In the residential sector, heating and cooling consume the most energy by a decent margin. Especially now, with weather being so extreme, it’s easy for heating and cooling to strain electrical systems that were built decades ago when such extreme conditions weren’t even a consideration.
Coming out of the 2010s, which are recognized as the hottest decade on record, grid operators have seen firsthand how urgently the electric grid needs revamping. Summer heatwaves and polar vortexes in the winter have become commonplace, damaging above-ground power lines, exacerbating limited electricity supply and ultimately causing power blackouts.
Electric vehicles are shaping the future of electricity demands
Though demand for EVs is certainly increasing every year, there will be no major need for increased grid capacity anytime soon. In the long run, new power plants and upgraded networks will facilitate nationwide EV adoption. If the US was to rely fully on EVs, electricity demand could grow as much as 55 percent in some states, requiring significant investment in infrastructure. For now, however, analysts agree that the current grid has the capacity to power millions of new EVs with the help of meticulous planning.
As every state has varying grid capacities, and differing patterns of consumption during different times of year, grid operators will have to carefully manage energy consumption. Considerations will include seasonal changes in electricity use, peak and off-peak usage times throughout the day and whether purchasing electricity from other states could be an alternative solution.
With the increase of electricity consumption due to EVs, it’s important to question how this electricity is being generated and if it could be cleaner. The urgency in adopting electric vehicles goes hand-in-hand with the need for renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. If the country transitions to electric vehicles, ensuring that this electricity is produced in a clean way is just as important in the bigger picture.
Can the grid handle the strain?
If electric vehicles are shaping the future of our electricity consumption and future demands, it’s reasonable to question whether or not the current electric grid could handle the strain. Because the thing is, it’s not just one factor (charging EVs) that can overload an electric grid – rather it’s a multitude of facets, that can sometimes be avoided by simply delving further into a planning strategy. For example:
- Optimal charging times
One main concern with EV use is when individuals or fleets will be charging their vehicles. Electricity use is significantly higher in the late afternoon, and if consumers are charging their vehicles during this same time, it will quickly lead to grid overload. If vehicles were to be charged during optimal, off-peak hours, many states, such as Texas, would have more than enough capacity to handle the demand. Other states such as California, however, could not handle the strain on their electrical grid no matter the time of day.
- Infrastructure planning
In the case of states who do not have sufficient surplus in capacity, or cannot charge solely during off-peak times, million- or even billion-dollar investments into infrastructure will be necessary. New power plants will have to be built, along with adding the necessary transmission lines and transformers to carry the electricity to where it is needed. The grid may also have to be expanded to support EV charging stations.
- Vulnerability to weather
In states where weather conditions are worsening and reaching new extremes each year, electric grids are already facing many challenges. In the fall, wildfires run rampant through northern and southern California, causing utilities managers to carry out preemptive power outages, in order to lessen the risk of power lines sparking more wildfires. While the power outage is meant to save lives and avoid disaster, the daily need for electricity doesn’t stop and life must go on. One solution being considered is vehicle-to-grid technology, that allows fully charged batteries in parked EVs to be used as a backup resource for energy in times of need.
The future of electric lays in adequate planning
Ultimately, the electrification of vehicles and supporting the transition will come down to careful planning from grid operators, federal and state investment into infrastructure, and a gradual switch to clean energy sources. The process will require major collaboration on all fronts and creative solutions for the potential problems mentioned above. Electrification will not be a one-and-done operation, and will likely take several decades before the right infrastructure is in place to support it. However, the sooner leaders and managers begin talking and taking action, the sooner society will be able to reap the benefits of a healthier environment and considerable fuel savings.