EVs Won’t Overload the Power Grid. They Could Strengthen It.

  • Electric cars won’t take over the US grid anytime soon, energy and transportation experts say.
  • Electric cars don’t consume much energy now, and it will be decades before electric cars take over completely.
  • Electric cars can charge when it’s best for the grid and may even be able to store energy for the future.

Battery-powered Teslas, Fords and Volkswagens won’t take over the US electric grid, despite what Tucker Carlson and some Republican politicians I say.

Last month, electric vehicle skeptics had field day when the utility of California called the customers to save energy during a hot heat wave by not charging their cars during certain hours. Some conservatives question how the state expects to ban sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2035 if it can’t keep up with the number of electric cars on the road today.

On his Fox News show, Carlson hit electric cars as “a new way to overload California’s already collapsing power grid.”

Energy and transport experts have a different opinion.

Plugging in more electric cars will increase energy demand over time, forcing a stronger grid and smarter charging habits, they say. But there is no immediate cause for alarm. With careful planning, there will be enough electricity for a tour.

Electric cars may one day make the grid stronger and more sustainable.

Electric cars are not very energy intensive

Although California has more electric cars than any other state, they make up only .4% of all energy consumption during peak hours. Even with projections for 2030, about 5.6 million electric cars, trucks and vans will account for only 4% of peak loads.

“To say they’re what’s burdening the grid ignores 99.6 percent of today’s challenge,” Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, said in a recent blog post.

Although EV sales are growing, Americans keep their cars an average of 12 years, so it will be a long time before the entire US fleet changes.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability research group, predicts that total energy demand in the US will grow by 1% to 2% annually as a result of the adoption of electric cars. That’s comparable to utility increases during the energy booms of the 20th century, with the spread of refrigeration and air conditioning, the group said.

“Load growth is something that some utilities haven’t experienced in a while, but it’s generally within what utilities can plan for and manage,” said Chaz Teplin, director of RMI, adding that the biggest challenge will be the country’s transition to renewable energy sources.

Still, network improvements will be needed to handle the extra load, experts say. According to a 2020 study by the Brattle Group, the 20 million light-duty electric vehicles on US roads by 2030 will require $45 to $75 billion investment in more stable energy generation, distribution and storage.

Electric cars are uniquely flexible

Unlike a refrigerator, which must keep food cold 24/7, or an air conditioner, which can draw power for hours on a hot day, a typical electric car can be parked 23 hours a day. This provides a lot of flexibility in terms of when they load.

Shifting charging to times most favorable to the grid — such as at night when demand is low or during the day when solar production is high — can significantly reduce peak stress on the grid, even with increased demand from EVs, experts said .

“For the foreseeable future, we can do a lot with the network we already have,” Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, a transportation-focused consultancy, told Insider.

RMI sees California’s recent heat wave as proof that managed charging is working: People adjusted their habits and the state avoided shutdowns.

If drivers continue to charge whenever they want, “then it means we have to build an extremely robust grid,” said Matthias Preindl, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University. But smart grid technology that instructs vehicles when to charge could do wonders to manage peak loads and negate the need for infrastructure upgrades in many areas, he said. Some utilities have smart charging programs, but they aren’t common yet.

A recent study by 2035 the EV ecosystem found that encouraging people to charge during the day could save Western countries billions in energy storage investment. Increased solar production will require batteries to store electricity for nighttime use, but daytime charging reduces this need.

In the future, electric cars can support the grid

Some experts foresee a future in which electric cars can strengthen power grids if used smartly. Vehicle-to-Grid or V2G technology will transform plug-in electric cars into a distributed battery system that can help utilities store electricity for emergencies or times of excess demand.

That future is far away, but car companies are dealing with adjacent technologies. The Ford F-150 Lightning pickup can act as a backup generator and power a home for up to three days, for example.

Preindl said V2G will be key to storing energy generated by wind and solar and the U.S. transition to clean energy sources. “If all cars are electric, the amount of energy storage we have access to is huge,” he said.