What if the Grid Can’t Handle All Those Electric Vehicles?

As of last November, there were over three million plug-in vehicles on the roads around the world, according to The Guardian newspaper – and fully a third of them were sold in 2017. And then last week, in his State of the State address, Governor Jerry Brown called for putting five million zero-emission vehicles on California’s roads by 2030. That’s good news for all of us who care about reducing air pollution and limiting the burning of fossil fuels.

The world is in the early stages of a fundamental and profound shift in the way we generate, distribute, and consume power. It’s what economist and author Jeremy Rifkin has called “The Third Industrial Revolution.” His analysis suggests that the First Industrial Revolution, which took place in the middle of the 19th century, was the result of simultaneous shifts in three critical economic sectors, communication, power generation, and transportation.

Over a 40- to 50-year time period the primary source of power for homes and factories evolved from water power and wood stoves to electricity generated by steam; at the same time, we were building out telegraph and telephone networks, and using the printing press to create a literate society, developments that led to rapid, relatively inexpensive communication; and thirdly we built coal-powered, steam-driven locomotives that could move both people and goods long distances at much higher rates of speed than horse-drawn wagons were capable of.

Then, in the early 1900s, we transformed all three of those basic economic activities again. We moved from a dependence on steam and coal to an oil-based and electrified economy; we developed the internal combustion engine and added trucks and automobiles to our transportation system. We witnessed the growth of radio and television broadcasts that transformed once again how we communicated with each other and learned about events in distant locations.

In 2018, Rifkin believes we are in the early stages of a Third Industrial Revolution. The shift in communication capabilities is obvious: The Internet enables us to communicate directly with almost anyone anywhere in the world, at almost no cost. And we are also transitioning from oil and other fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power.

Both of those developments include moving from highly centralized sources of power and knowledge to widely distributed mechanisms. In addition, the rising cost of gasoline, in combination with growing concerns about climate change, has fostered explosive growth in the sales and use of hybrid cars and electric vehicles.

However, that rapid growth raises a question most of us do not often think about: Are we in danger of overloading the grid? Can we continue to generate enough electricity to power all those vehicles being plugged in every night at people’s homes rather than being refueled at gas stations? Well, the good news is that, at least so far, there appears to be little risk of running out of electricity.

A report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in November 2017 concluded that even though most EV owners do charge their vehicles at nighttime, during off-peak hours, there is a great deal of variation in the timing of when they plug into the grid. Thus, in the near term we aren’t going to experience night-time peaks or brownouts and the overall demand for electricity remains lower at night.

Since 2012, California’s state regulators have required the state’s largest investor-owned utilities to publish an annual “load report” that puts the growth in EV demand in perspective. And the news is encouraging. First, even though the number of EV’s in California has grown by a factor of 12 in the last five years, that growth has not driven any significant need to upgrade the transmission lines or electrical generation capacity. In fact, the cost of system upgrades attributable to increased EV charging is less than 100th of one percent of the utilities’ total capital expenditures on the grid in 2017. Second, and more importantly, time-of-use rates for electricity have been very effective at encouraging off-peak charging by EV owners. Off-peak rates are so inexpensive, especially compared to gasoline, that virtually all EV charging is occurring at night. Furthermore, most EV charging systems make it possible for owners to schedule the charging at any time during the night, so many of them choose to have the charging cycle begin at midnight or even later, towards the end of the off-peak window, rather than at the beginning.

The NRDC concludes that: In short, California brings welcome news for all states experiencing and accelerating EV growth. Rather than crashing the grid, grid impacts from EVs to date in the country’s largest market have been marginal. … Therefore, states, utilities, and grid planners need not fear transportation electrification; they should embrace it.

This article first appeared in the February 7, 2018 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author Jim Ware can be emailed at jim@jimware.com.

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