No, the grid isn’t ready for plug-in cars. But by the time the cars plug in, it will be.

By Rachel Cohen and Joshua Skov

Big change makes people fret, and the transformation of our energy systems to address the climate crisis is the source of some mighty fretting. The Washington Post recently condensed one concern – the rapid transition to EVs and the associated new electrical load – into a single headline: “Plug-in cars are the future. The grid isn’t ready.”

While intellectually seductive and appealingly apocalyptic, the headline and the article are off base. The Post’s headline really should be something like, “People moving quickly to prepare us for 2035 will need another 10-12 years to prepare…for 2035.” That more accurate framing appropriately gives the lie to the alarm-bell vibe.

As it happens, the grid is preparing quickly for the new world that will arrive, electric car by electric car, over the next two decades. To be fair, there are some technological and financial tools to figure out, some massive investments to make, and even some policies to change. And since transportation electrification spells an increase in load just as we are retiring coal and hoping to rein in natural gas, we will need a parallel investment in renewables.

Fortunately, all of that work is happening.

EVs approaching slowly

First, let’s be clear about the pace at which this new world order will arrive. New EVs are exciting and decarbonization is urgent, but it takes time for a small flow to replace a large stock.

  • New car sales: Electric vehicles represented 3% of new US vehicle sales in Q2 of 2021. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that 690,000 EVs will be sold nationwide by the end of this year.
  • Stock of cars: Let’s be clear — it will take decades to get ICE vehicles off the road. There are currently around 200 million light-duty vehicles on the road in the US. Even with massive year-over-year sales growth, Bloomberg estimates that by 2040, EVs will make up just one-third of the global vehicle stock.

Sure, some forward-thinking jurisdictions have already planned a speedier phase-out of gasoline-powered vehicles. But even the most ambitious plans – in California and New York – will end sales of those cars by 2035. Cars sold in 2035 will largely be with us well into the 2040s, and of course even the most ambitious automakers aren’t aiming for that soon, with a few (Ford, GM, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz) signing on to the COP26 side agreement for a 2040 phase-out. ICE vehicles are riding off into the sunset slowly, and the ramp-up of EVs will likely proceed at a similar pace.

Clean power approaching quickly

Next, let’s note the new fundamentals of power markets: solar and wind are cheaper than everything else, and they are getting cheaperer. New renewables now cost less than other sources of generation in virtually every corner of the U.S. electric grid. In the case of solar, some estimates suggest that costs still have a long way to fall. In short, we will increasingly be awash in inexpensive electricity from renewable sources.

The Post article notes a few barriers to new renewables – to wind development in particular – but fails to point out how financially feasible the broader renewables roll-out will be, and how geographically diffuse the renewables boom has become. The U.S. economy will literally save trillions of dollars in coming decades from investments in new renewable energy, all while reducing our carbon emissions and cleaning up the air.

Necessary grid investments are big, but in fact not that big

True, the current grid needs some upgrades, the article gives this concern some scale, citing a study suggesting that an investment of up to $125 billion will be necessary “to support 20 million EVs by 2030.” Sounds like a big number, right? That’s about $379 per capita over an entire decade. Considering that we spend nearly six times this much each year on the Department of Defense and more than four times as much annually on federal loans to small businesses, I think we can find the cash somewhere.

Closer to home than the necessary transmission and distribution investments, there’s similar alarmism at the household level. Recent research suggests that electrical panels “in up to 48 million U.S. single-family homes will need to be upgraded to fully transition away from fossil fuels” – calling the investment a “$100 billion roadblock” to full electrification. Sounds pricey, right? Again, some scale is helpful: given that the U.S. housing stock is currently valued at over $36 trillion, I’m guessing that we can swing this 0.3% investment over the next couple of decades.

And that financial math still misses the point: as analysts note, we need to upgrade the grid anyway. In some ways, this moment of modernization comes just as we need to make changes for other reasons, such as resilience to extreme weather and wildfire, as well as the inevitable decay from the passage of time. The urgency of the investments may not be comfortable, but the timing is surprisingly good. 

Wait a sec, exactly how much power will these EVs need?

Finally, in case those reasons don’t reassure you, let’s put the final nail in this narrative’s coffin by scaling this new load and setting it in context of the grid and its growth.

We’ve done the math in this spreadsheet, but if you can keep track of units (especially metric prefixes), it’s a fairly straight forward combination of these current and near-term realities:

  • The number of new EVs: about half a million in sales in 2021 in the U.S.
  • Total load, based on about 3-4 MWh/passenger vehicle-year, is about 2,000,000 MWh, or 2 TWh.
  • Total utility-scale electrical energy in U.S. this year = 4009 TWh (EIA).

Wow, that’s a lot of electricity for EVs! Shouldn’t we worry? No. Not to say that there aren’t individual uses that add up to significant shares of total electricity use. Air conditioning, for example, uses about 400 TWh (roughly 15%), with space heating and water heating close behind (14% and 11% respectively). Electric vehicles will eventually make up a major share, too.

In fact, EVs might already be the fastest-growing share, but only because total U.S. electricity use has barely budged in fifteen years, rising less than 5% while inflation-adjusted GDP has grown roughly 50% over the same period. Energy efficiency measures are now deployed steadily in building systems, electronics products, lighting, and industry – making room for EVs.

The growth of renewables will provide even more room. For the foreseeable future, we will be adding renewables to that system much more quickly. In 2020, we added about 20 GW of solar, representing roughly 30 TWh of new energy. Recall that the EVs sold in 2021 used just two TWh. EV sales will accelerate, but utility-scale renewables are way ahead and also accelerating. (As it happens, we could use someplace to put extra daytime solar – more on that below.)

Fortunately, electrifying transportation – like electrification generally – carries other benefits that we can see if we fret a little less about alleged burden on the grid. As Saul Griffith points out in his Rewiring America Handbook (see chapter five), “electrifying everything” will ultimately reduce total energy use, allow us a shot at a zero-carbon economy, and save consumers trillions of dollars.

In short, the picture just looks better over time. According to BNEF, by the time California’s 100% EV sales mandate takes full effect in 2035, EVs will make up just 4.8% of US electricity demand, we will have more than 200 GW of onshore wind and 220 GW of utility-scale solar installations, or nearly double current capacity (now about 130 GW and 70 GW, respectively). To crunch the numbers (also in that spreadsheet): solar generation alone will vastly outpace electricity demand by EVs by more than a factor of two. And by then we will be well on our way to the grid investments necessary for transmission and distribution. That leads inexorably to the final good news about the grid.

And then maybe the grid will be better with all of these EVs…

The foregoing case puts the main worry to bed, but we should still point out one clincher: a world of EVs might in fact be better for the grid of the future. The battery in each electric vehicle can act as distributed storage, that is, energy storage that is spatially diffuse. This storage is likely to be easier on the grid by demanding less infrastructure for local distribution.

There is an enticing possibility for utilities transitioning toward renewables. Flexibility in charging times could regularly mop up solar power generation when it is most abundant and reduce solar curtailment – this is already relevant in California. In fact, specific ideas for connecting intermittent renewables with vehicle charging are not new, and California regulators are exploring how to foster the vehicle- and household-level investments that will strengthen the grid.

Indeed, EVs may offer a form of resilience by providing back-up power to homes in emergencies. The Ford F-150 Lightning, slated to start production in early 2022, has drawn attention for its ability to power a home. (Some Texans already demonstrated this use of the Ford F-150 hybrid’s on-board generator during the February 2021 snowstorm.) More broadly, EVs promise vehicle-to-grid (V2G) opportunities, providing power to homes at peak times – in some sense, the logical follow-on to charging at off-peak times. This capability puts more flexible storage closer to more end uses.

These opportunities will require additional investment and coordination in order to come to fruition. Nonetheless, the basic point is clear: plugging in a bundle of EVs will offer value to households, communities, and the grid itself.

In conclusion, stay calm and keep plugging in

Don’t take this the wrong way: we all have our climate work cut out for us. Decarbonizing our economy quickly will take a full-court press, good state and federal policy, a lot of money, and a bit of luck. In service of defining this work, many skeptics, such as the authors of the piece in The Post, raise a few of the important challenges that stand between us and a low-carbon future. 

But the problem with this kind of journalism is that it throws anecdotes and worst-case scenarios into a blender and then purports to pour out a smoothie of insights, while failing to provide context and ignoring even those solutions we can see before us right now. That willful ignorance misleads.

So the lesson here is two-fold. First, don’t get distracted by these challenges, and just as you absorb the important stories from one jurisdiction or another, always look for that bigger picture that is truer to the long-term trend, one that happens to be a bit sunnier than the negative anecdote suggests. By learning something from every region’s hiccups, we will create a more robust transition.

And second, bring this stance to your conversations with others – seriously, push this back onto the naysayers. “The grid isn’t ready!” they complain. Oh yeah? Then tell us how to get there! There are plenty of solutions and innovation rolling out as we speak. But whatever you do, stop whining between miles three and four that we aren’t done with the marathon yet. Let’s put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll get there.

Rachel Cohen is a Senior Strategy & Planning Analyst for Portland General Electric. Joshua Skov is a Senior Project Director with WSP USA, and an Industry Mentor and Senior Instructor in the Center for Sustainable Business Practices of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

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