As the adoption of electric cars, trucks, and buses gains momentum, many people are wondering if the electric grid is up to the task of charging all of those vehicles.
There are really two questions rolled up into that thought, differentiated by timescale: Can the grid handle all of the electric vehicles (EVs) we have in the near term, like today and next year? And will the grid be able to handle all of the electric vehicles we will have as we progress toward a highly-electrified transportation future, by say 2040 or 2050? Let’s pick apart these two questions.
Can the power grid handle all the electric vehicles we buy in the next few years?
The grid is well-equipped to supply energy to EVs at current adoption levels. Over 2.7 million plug-in hybrid and full battery-electric cars and light trucks were sold in the United States by the end of 2021, with the majority of those still on the road. Sales of cars and light trucks in 2022 so far have been strong, with battery electric sales hitting a striking new record, and bus and heavy truck sales are expected to pick up as well. Even in states with higher EV adoption currently, power demand from EVs is not causing issues. For example, California has reach 16.3% light-duty EV sales (totaling 1.14 million EVs on the road), and while California has been struggling to maintain grid reliability the past few years, increased electricity demand from EV charging load is not one of the problems.
Sure, when the next electric car rolls onto a neighborhood block already filled with electric cars or a transit agency plans to roll out half dozen electric buses at the depot, the local utility may need to upgrade a local transformer or add extra distribution wires. But do not doubt this: there is currently enough power generation and transmission currently to serve the increase in charging load from EV purchases in the next few years, particularly if they are charged at times when other demands for power are less (such as overnight) or at times of high renewable energy generation.
I’ll say it again because the fossil fuel disinformation machine wants you to believe otherwise: there is enough power generation and transmission on our current electric grid to charge all the electric vehicles being purchased over the next few years.
Will the grid be able to handle all of the electric vehicles we will have in the future?
Yes, if we prepare well.
The transition to a highly electrified future won’t happen overnight. Even if, by some magic, all new car and light truck sales were 100% electric tomorrow, it would take over a decade for all the cars on the road today to become even 90% EVs. That is because vehicles are very durable goods—the average car or light truck remains on the road for over 12 years and some of them are on the road much longer than that. In a non-magic scenario, sales will ramp up to 100% electric vehicles between now and 2035 in order to meet state and federal greenhouse gas reduction goals for 2050. And in that case, we should get close to 100% on-road electric cars by 2050.
So, we have time to make sure the grid is ready, but we can’t squander the time we have.
We can’t accept an unreliable grid—not for EV charging or anything else! We need electric utilities and regional grid operators to invest in more energy capacity and robust transmission and distribution infrastructure. Grid operators have started planning in many places for increased electricity demand from the electrification of vehicles as well as appliances and other end-uses, including the Midcontinent grid region (aka MISO), and all will need to up their game. We also need grid operators to invest in grid resilience, so power outages have less impact and electricity can be restored more quickly if it does go out.
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 how much electricity their customers would need over the course of a day far ahead of time, and day-to-day needs were roughly consistent within a particular season of the year. These days, both supply and demand are more dynamic throughout the day and day-to-day as we incorporate more and more utility-scale renewable energy generation as well as distributed resources behind the customer’s meter (e.g., 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. UCS analysis has demonstrated as much.
Indeed, electric vehicles can support the integration of renewable energy and the stable operation of the grid by leveraging electric vehicles as a flexible load and, for EVs that can export power, a source of electricity storage.
An EV is a battery on wheels
An EV is not like your television, plugged into the wall and drawing energy in real time while it is in use. Rather, the battery in an EV stores energy for when it is in use, the same way your wireless headphones or any other battery-charged device do. Most drivers have a lot of flexibility in when they charge their EV battery, so charging can be done at times that are better for the grid, like midday when solar farms are producing electricity at their maximum or overnight when the grid has capacity to spare. In other words, the way EVs use energy is more like charging your phone than running the fridge.
But it gets even better that that.
Imagine a hot summer day when the grid is going to be running at (or beyond) its full capacity in the late afternoon. The EV sitting parked in your driveway or the school bus stored at the bus depot could, if set up to do so, send the electricity stored in its battery back to a strained grid and help meet the needs of millions of folks with fans, air conditioners, laptops, and lights that need power during the day’s peak electricity demand. Even a few kilowatts of power, if provided from a sufficient number of vehicles, would help a lot! This sort of arrangement would not rely only on the good will of drivers—utilities, grid operators, and third parties are working to create programs and markets to provide incentives for drivers to contribute this kind of smart charging and power export.
If you’re not set up to export power to the grid yet, you may still be able to help. Newer utility model EVs, like the Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T, come with power outlets installed on the truck. Without any additional setup, one of those vehicles could be used to power an appliance or tool at a home or worksite to offset the stress that device would otherwise put on the grid.
EVs can also boost local resilience during outage events, providing a lifeline to backup power if the broader grid goes down. This time, imagine an ice storm, hurricane, or public safety power shutoff has knocked out power your the area. You’re out of immediate danger, but you don’t have power to keep warm/cool, refrigerate perishable food and medicines, etc. An EV that is set up to export its stored energy could provide power to a home or shelter to bridge the time until power can be restored.
Vehicle-grid integration is for everyone
These are just a few examples of the ways EVs can support and be supported by the grid. This kind of managed charging and vehicle-grid integration doesn’t come in one silver bullet solution. Ideally, every EV driver or fleet operator will engage in vehicle-grid integration in some way, but not everyone has to be super sophisticated about it. We need a variety of tools and programs for drivers to choose from so there’s an opportunity for everyone to benefit from vehicle-grid integration, while still using their vehicles for the vehicles’ main purpose—transportation.
We can meet our future needs, but we must also reduce demand
I find all of the vehicle-grid stuff very interesting and exciting (if you couldn’t tell), but I want to offer a final bit of broader perspective.
The best electric load is the avoided load, the load you don’t add to the grid in the first place.
For transportation, a big part of avoiding some of the expected increase in electricity load from transportation is reducing the total number of miles that we drive. The idea is to enact solutions that result in putting fewer miles on the cars that drive us around and on the trucks that bring us our goods—or better still, have fewer cars and trucks—so that we need less energy for transportation. This is why investments in public transit service and active transportation infrastructure, as well as less car-centric city planning, are important strategies for meeting our transportation energy needs.
This vision of a smarter, cleaner transportation future will also curb the climate and health-harming pollution from transportation, and this future wouldn’t be just a nice-to-have thing. We must make it a reality if we are to escape the worst effects of climate change and to reduce health harms from transportation affecting the most pollution-burdened communities.