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NICK STOCKTON TRANSPORTATION 02.03.18 10:00 AM

ELECTRIC CARS COULD DESTROY THE ELECTRIC GRID—OR


FIX IT FOREVER

Even if utilities are paying attention to the broad trends, they need to watch out for a patchwork uptake in EVs that could hit
particular cities, towns, or neighborhoods. CHEVROLET

ELECTRIC VEHICLES ARE a fixture of many a transportation utopia, and for good
reasons. In a world still reliant on private transportation, they promise everything
from lower pollution to higher torque. However, at least one counterpoint mars the
dream of exhaust-free street racing: Today’s grid would likely fail catastrophically if
the entire US car fleet immediately made the switch to running on electricity.

Let’s call this scenario of massive, simultaneous electric vehicle uptake the
Pluggening. “If every customer starts buying electric vehicles, obviously that would
cause a big impact on utilities,” says Mohammed Beshir, a professor of electrical
engineering at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. Picture transformers spewing
3
sparks like they were celebrating Chinese New Year. Subscribe
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That scenario, though, is pure
fantasy. Current EV trends show low to moderate uptake rates. And sure, if utilities
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don’t pay attention, they could wind up like proverbial frogs in simmering pots, not
realizing they’re being boiled alive until it’s too late to hop to safety.

The good news is that massive—if not immediate—EV uptake could be a boon to the
grid, by leveling out daily electricity demand and possibly even storing renewable
energy in cars’ batteries, to be discharged when needed.

The utilities have plenty of time to plan ahead. Beshir, who has been researching how
EVs might impact the grid for the better part of a decade, says he doesn’t see any real
impact to the grid until around 15 percent of vehicles on the road go electric. A
Bloomberg New Energy Finance report released last summer projects that level of
uptake will happen by 2035.

Even if utilities are paying attention to the broad trends, they need to watch out for a
patchwork Pluggening that could hit cities, towns, or neighborhoods where electric
cars catch on quicker than elsewhere. Let’s call this scenario Keeping Up With the
Muskses. “If each home on a block gets one electric vehicle, that’s probably equivalent
to double that block’s existing power load,” says Beshir.

That’s a problem, because utilities traditionally dole out electricity in hub and spoke
fashion. Power plants make the juice and ship it out over high voltage wires. The lines
that send power to your lights, refrigerator, and Tesla Model 3 do the same for your
neighbors. If demand surges in one EV-happy neighborhood, it could cause flickering
lights—or worse—in nearby areas. Like politics, problems with the grid may seem
national—but most begin locally.

The first sign the local grid has reached is limit will come from pole-top transformers,
those cylindrical metal things you can hear humming loudly on hot, summer days,
when everyone’s blasting the A/C. These spin down high voltage electricity from the
transmission wires to the relatively tame 120V and 240V suitable for residential use.

Unlike the intractable complications of politics, girding the grid for an uptick in
demand is straightforward. Utilities can start by installing more transformers, so
more high voltage electricity can come down to residential levels. Eventually, as more
people replace their internal combustion engined cars with Teslas and Chevy Bolts,
the utilities will need to transmit more power.

The fix in this case is to add new wires capable of transmitting more power. This stuff
isn’t hard to explain, it’s just expensive. By the way, those expenses are something you
and every other electricity user will likely pay for a share of, regardless of whether
you’ve bought an EV.
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But Beshir and other experts think EVs will provide enough benefits to at leastSUBSCRIBE
balance out at least some of the cost of those upgrades. So long as the electrification
of personal transportation doesn’t completely restructure the American Workday.
This is due to every economist’s old pals: supply and demand.

“On a daily time scale, demand typically starts off low, and builds through the early
morning as people start getting ready for work and take care of things around the
house,” says Jarod Kelly, a vehicle systems analyst engineer at Argonne National
Laboratory’s Center for Transportation Research. Demand peaks around 6 pm, when
workers get home, make dinner, watch Netflix...

… Then chill, as electrical demand drops into an overnight valley. These nighttime
hours—when EVs are conveniently parked in garages and curbs—are the cheapest
time to charge. This fact isn’t lost on EV manufacturers. “Most EVs have systems that
allow you to say, ‘OK, I am leaving at 8 am,’ so the computer can calculate the rate at
which it needs to charge so it is fully charged by the time you need to leave,” says
Kelly. In this way, individual EVs spread their demand for juice over the course of the
night.

This charging pattern would be ideal for utilities. In order to satisfy the day and night
peaks and valleys of electricity demand, utilities typically have to spin up, and shut
down power plants. All that cycling is expensive. Remember, EVs can use as much
energy, or even more, an entire home to charge. In an ideal situation—where cars in a
given neighborhood or city stagger out their overnight charging needs—the valleys
would raise to meet average daytime uses. With more overall demand, and less
diurnal variation, generating electricity gets be cheaper. And, because of the way
utilities are regulated, that cost gets reflected in your bill, regardless of what you
drive.

EVs are so attractive to utilities, that some even offer rebates to users who install
charging stations in their homes. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
hands out up to $500 rebates. Other utilities around the US offer similar deals, such as
special rates if you pledge to charge during nonpeak, overnight hours.

Even better, more electric cars could help utilities usher in more renewable energy.
Notwithstanding the US government’s recent announcement of a 30 percent tariff on
imported photovoltaic cells, solar power is growing. Given the obvious—the sun
shines during the day—this could offset some of the demand from centralized power
plants.

EVs are batteries on wheel. Drivers with access to daytime plugs could fill up on
energy
3 A r t i c lwhile
e s L e f t the sun is shining, then discharge that power
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In the grid when
demand peaks, earning the driver a little rebate. “And wind typically blows harder in
the evening,” Kelly says, so nighttime EV chargers could suck up and store some of
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that energy, discharging their excess after driving to work to meet mid-morning
demand. This modular approach to storing renewable energy tackles one of the
biggest problems facing the wind and solar industries.

Finally, this whole swirling trend of EVs and renewable energy is happening while
utilities nationwide are adopting so-called smart grid technologies—sensors and
other feedback mechanisms that allow for real time models of demand. This is partly
a response to past catastrophes, like the 2013 Northeastern blackouts. So, if electric
vehicles do collide with the grid, it’s because utilities took their eyes of the road.

Plug It
The potential pitfalls of EVs, in five charts

Ford finally makes its move into electric cars

Tesla delays its Model 3 production goals—again

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