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Electric Car Boom Could Deliver a Surge in Grid Power

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UPDATE: Here’s the bad news about electric vehicles: They’re going to be hell on the grid. The Utilities Telecom Council trade group reports that electric vehicles will require a 16-fold increase in power usage in the next decade, putting pressure on utilities to find out how to handle car charging as quickly as possible.

UTC’s report, prepared by The Shpigler Group, takes a rather optimistic view of how popular plug-in cars are going to be. UPDATED: It predicts electricity demand from plug-ins will grow from 146,000 megawatt-hours in 2010 to 2.6 million mWh kWh by 2020.

That’s a fraction of overall grid demand, but it’s largely the way people will plug in their EVs that could make it particularly hard for utilities to deal with the trend. Each plug-in car adds roughly the equivalent of a new house to the local grid’s electricity demand, which is something most neighborhood distribution feeders and substations weren’t built to supply.

Blown transformers, neighborhood blackouts and other problems could emerge as a result of too many EVs in concentrated areas getting plugged into neighborhood garages en masse. Pacific Gas & Electric has identified hot spots like Berkeley — home of the plug-in Toyota (s tm) Prius hybrid retrofit market — as neighborhoods that might be facing this kind of problem soon.

Beyond the geographical issues, there’s a timing issue, too. If they all start charging when people come home from work — the same time they’re cranking up their household power use — it could crash the grid.

Charge them around midnight, however, and the nation could see plug-ins replace more than half its 254 million existing cars without adding a single new power plant, according to a study from DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s because lots of 24/7 power generation resources get wasted at night, when everyone goes to bed and power demand peak drops to its minimum level. Again, however, we need technology to help us solve this problem.

Utilities are preparing for future EVs with a host of pilot projects, with the likes of gear providers GE (s GE), Siemens (s si), Schneider Electric, and ABB (s abb). At the same time, automakers are partnering with these companies in order to build the charging networks they’ll need to sell more EVs in the next decade. Private car-charging networks, such as NRG Energy’s subscription-style EV charging network (s nrg) in Texas, are also emerging.

Of course, all these issues depend upon how popular plug-in cars will become over the next decade. It’s hard to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the electric equivalent of a nationwide network of gas stations before you know how many EVs there will be on the road.

The Obama Administration insists that 1 million plug-ins will be on U.S. highways by 2015, but many are more pessimistic. In the meantime, local plug-in networks are being built by intrepid startups serving the small, yet well-connected, audience of EV drivers now on the road.

Image courtesy of Flying Amos via Creative Commons license.

7 Responses to “Electric Car Boom Could Deliver a Surge in Grid Power”

  1. This article presents a skewed, hypothetical scenario about the potential impact of charging electric vehicles (EVs) on the national power grid. Speculating about the impact of mass EV charging during peak hours without taking into account electric grid infrastructure improvements, demand management technologies, varying vehicle configurations and consumer charging habits distorts the realities of the evolving grid. The electrical grid has the capacity to meet existing and expected demand. Utilities and energy planners nationwide are already working to match improvements in power infrastructure to adoption of electric vehicles. That is what utilities did when U.S. homeowners adopted central air conditioning and, more recently, multiple flat screen TVs. And it is what is happening now with cars.

    By claiming that electric vehicles will be “hell” on the grid without providing context for this assertion, the article misinforms readers about the expected impact of EVs on the electric grid and the demand management strategies and technologies already in place and those on the way. Studies have shown that electric grid capacity is expected to be sufficient to support the charging of electric vehicles. For example, a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory concluded in November 2007 that 73 percent of the nation’s light duty vehicles could be recharged with existing excess utility capacity. A report by Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that by 2030 just eight additional power plants nationwide may be needed to support high-demand levels for charging more than 50 million EVs after 10 p.m. These findings correctly point out we can achieve the air quality, emissions and national security benefits of the electrified transportation with a modernized grid that empower consumers and utilities to make efficient charging choices.

    Brian Wynne, President
    Electric Drive Transportation Association
    Washington, DC

  2. Lisa Laughner

    If neighborhood transformers can’t handle the power demands from electric vehicles, why wouldn’t their owners invest in home electric power generators and charge up ‘off grid’ any time day or night? If the generator is fueled by natural gas, it is is a clean source of energy. Plus you would have back up home power when your neighbors’ EV’s blow the transformers!

  3. Stating the obvious

    Instead of worrying so much about the mass costs associated with the existing grid, just put a timer on the dedicated charging line for the vehicle, so that it charges during the off-peak hours. Trust me, if enough people in an area actually crash their local grid enough times, they’ll gladly shell out $25-50 for a timer to avoid the hassle of remembering to get back up and plug it in when they go to bed.

  4. These folks must be measuring the KWH drain of the average EV with some kind of “made in his own Garage” instrument. Folks from Puget Sound Energy , at a recent meeting focusing on EV Charging and Infrastructure… stated that the load would be close to what a Hot Water heater uses. NOT a Whole House.. Not even Half a House.
    Why don’t these people ask folks who have been using EV’s for YEARS or in my case 30 years !! We know what the Watts per miles ARE. About 250 watt/hours per mile. LESS for something REALLY efficient, and probably MORE for something heavy, like a Pick-Up Truck. That is One Forth of a Hair Dryer per mile. And the Average EV Driver drives around 8000 miles a year so that is apronx 2000 KWHours, or in Seattle …. $ 160. dollars !!
    GO TO the Electric Power Research Institute and READ their study on this.

  5. Thanks for comments, all. I would say a new house load would be a maximum limit to the load that a plugged-in vehicle would add to the local grid, using a Level 2 charger. I appreciate the clarity that your comments bring to the comparison as well. Even so, the problem of everyone plugging in when they come home between 5-7 p.m. will remain one that needs to be addressed, either by beefing up the local grid, or managing charging…

  6. Actually, each EV is more like adding 1/2 a household in the U.S., not a full household.

    The typical American household uses 8,000 to 10,000 kWh a year.

    Most EVs will use 3,000 to 5,000 kWh a year based on the U.S. average of 12 – 15,000 miles of driving per year. This will vary quite a bit too, based on the miles per kWh people get.

  7. Alarming headline and early paragraphs followed by more reality. A whole house? My Chevy Volt looks to the grid like a hairdryer– a bit more than a kilowatt an hour. My Nissan Leaf is like a couple of plasma TVs. Even if fully discharged, it can charge starting at 11pm and have a full electric tank by morning. Most people will charge at home, off-peak.

    — Felix Kramer, Founder,