Guest Op-Ed: Consumers are Ready for Electric Vehicles. Our Power Grid Isn’t

People go to the Consumer Electronic Shows in Las Vegas to see the world’s latest high-tech gadgets, from robot dogs to virtual reality goggles. Yet during the last convention, it was a 19th century gadget – an electric transformer – that stole the show.

Stressed by bad weather and high demand for local power infrastructure, the transformer failed, causing the entire exhibition space to go pitch-black. While crews worked to restore electricity, global headlines shared the news with the world as a barrage of tweets under #CESBlackout poked fun at the irony of 50 football fields of powerless technology.

More than comic fodder, this event was a valuable lesson reminding us that even the smartest, newest machines can’t function without the greatest machine ever built – the U.S. power grid. This is especially true in transportation, where vehicles, from personal cars to trucks and buses, are rapidly evolving by becoming electric and plugging into the power grid rather than running on gasoline.

Recent forecasts reveal that by 2040 more than half of new car sales will be electric vehicles, or EVs. Last year, EV sales increased 21 percent over prior year as automakers continued to make bullish announcements about future EV fleets.

We should recognize, though, that consumer demand for EVs can only grow as fast as our utility infrastructure enables it to. Supporting a massive EV fleet requires a much smarter, more digital power grid than we have currently. To be more specific, the power grid has to be reconfigured and made more resilient to handle more demand than ever before – otherwise we’ll have more outages like CES experienced.

As more people turn to EVs, they’re going to move away from charging them in slow-charging household outlets, to faster, more powerful ones (think of the plugs you use for your washer and dryer). Adding a single EV to the grid in this manner is roughly the equivalent of adding three houses. Put another way, an electric car could consume as much energy in a single charge as a refrigerator does in a month and a half.

Currently most EVs charge at off-peak hours. This will change as EV numbers achieve parity with other vehicles and as efforts are made to overcome what many call range anxiety – which is the fear of running out of power due to the present shortage of charging infrastructure.

Overcoming range anxiety will require a combination of more cost-effective battery storage technology and more charging stations – in other words, the ability to charge EVs at any time. Imagine what might happen then when all the EV owners in a neighborhood decide to recharge at the same time: it could very well be a Las Vegas-style blackout.

Here are three ways we can address these challenges.

First, there needs to be a shift away from supplying power based on historical data to deploying real-time models of demand. Software platforms and automated controls developed for power generation, distribution, and transmission are ready and able to facilitate this change and prepare grid networks for unpredictable spikes in demand.

Second, the strategy for creating more power generation shouldn’t be expanding large power plants; it should be focused on building more small ones. Onsite, distributed power systems, from solar panels to microgrids and co-generation facilities, can be installed in coordination with utilities, and can provide the next level of flexibility and resiliency the power grid needs. This new network architecture will provide intelligent distribution networks capable of troubleshooting through demand spikes to maintain grid reliability and protect transformers.

Third, we must now begin true cross-sector planning for transportation electrification. Working in concert with fleet owners, cities and power transmission companies, utilities should then start playing a larger role in expanding EV infrastructure.

Utilities have been challenged for years because of an overall decline in electricity demand. Widespread EV use turns that equation on its head and provides utilities a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent themselves and their business models for the better. Massive EV adoption would significantly increase daily electricity demand and even incentivize a two-way flow of electricity in which cars and buildings feed excess power back to the grid.

The famous saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” didn’t hold true when the lights went out on CES. But if the energy and transportation industries can work together now to prepare the power grid for EVs, at least the lights won’t go out on electrified transportation.

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