How electric vehicles will transform the grid, part 1

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(This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the second part here: How electric vehicles will drive over the electric monopolies.)

I recently had the honor of facilitating a panel on the impact of electric vehicles on the grid. It was part of an event hosted by the Center for Distributed Energy at Georgia Tech and the center’s leader, Dr. Deepak Divan. The panel included several execs from the companies shaping the EV revolution: Patrick Bean from Tesla, Mike Whitlash of UPS (huge fleet owner) and Jonathan Colbert from Mercedes Benz.

We discussed a wide range of topics from the rate of EV adoption across cars, fleets, and heavy-duty trucks; lessons learned from working with utilities as each of these companies built out charging networks; and observations on what is happening outside the US, especially in China.

Some of my biggest take-aways were just how beneficial EVs will be to the grid and the utility industry. But I also learned that EVs may be even more disruptive than they are helpful, so be sure to check out my second article, How electric vehicles will drive over the electric monopolies, part 2.

Just how big will the EV marketplace become?

To get a sense for just how quickly the EV market is growing, I reached out Loren McDonald of EVAdoption, one of my favorite strategy and data firms in the EV space. Loren told me:

The growth in EVs is building toward an inflection point beginning in about 2022 and will then see new EV sales nearly double by 2025. Sales of EVs in the US are forecast to reach 1.5 million in 2025 and 3 million by 2028, accounting for an estimated 18% of new vehicle sales. More significantly, California should reach 30% EV share of new vehicle sales in 2025 and 50% by 2029. The number of US EVs will grow from a cumulative 1.5 million in 2019 to more than 14 million in 2028.

EV Adoption Forecast of electric vehicle sales, reaching 3 million new EV cars by 2028
Graph courtesy

Loren also shared some other statistics that drove home the point:

  • The average BEV range will increase to an estimated 302 miles in 2023, from 220 in 2019 and 114 in 2015,
  • From 41 EV (both BEV and PHEV) models available in the US in 2019, we’ll see 60 additional new models introduced by 2022.
  • As of September 15, 2019 there are more than 67,000 public EV charging outlets (connections) available at nearly 23,000 locations. In 2011 there were only 3,400 outlets, and we expect the number to reach 100,000 in 2023.

Electric vehicles are one of the best things to happen to the grid in decades

Growth – EVs will recharge a stagnant utility industry

After a century of consistent growth, electricity consumption in the US stagnated about 10 years ago, with usage stuck around 3.7 billion megawatt hours. The culprit is energy efficiency. Despite continued population growth, efficiency technologies like LED bulbs have been so effective that demand for electricity has plateaued and is even shrinking in some places. But EVs will recharge the growth of the power industry. Not since air conditioning took off in the early 1900s has the utility business had a catalyst like EVs to drive its growth. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), EVs and other new forms of electrification will increase electricity consumption by 20%-38% by 2050. As consumers and businesses shift their vehicles from fossil fuels to electricity, their spending will shift from gasoline to cleaner, cheaper energy from their electric utility.

V1G – Controlling when EVs are charged can ease grid congestion

One of the most complex and expensive parts of managing the grid is “peak load.” This often occurs on weekdays after 5pm when families return from school and work. All at once, millions of stoves, clothes washers, and air conditioners turn on, spiking demand, and pushing power lines and power plants to their maximum capacity.

Many experts are concerned that EVs will make peak load even worse. But, as it turns out, EVs may also be the ideal solution. Unlike your stove or clothes washer, which needs to work the moment you turn them on, EVs can be charged at any point throughout the night (or during the day when there is excess solar). Imagine if your utility actually controlled when you car charged so they could optimize it for when they have the most capacity. I call this V1G — a simplified derivative of a more complex idea called V2G, which I will talk about next.

A 2019 study from Lawrence Berkley National Labs looked at this idea for the state of California. They found that scheduling the electric vehicles to charge in the middle of the day would be like adding 1 gigawatt of storage, and would save the state $1.45 billion to $1.75 billion in stationary battery costs.

V2G – Vehicle to Grid

As EV growth continues, the collective battery capacity across all those cars is predicted to far exceed the batteries deployed purely for the grid. This enormous collection of EV batteries will likely be the single best solution for balancing the intermittency of clean energy from the sun and wind. Imagine a hot summer afternoon with millions of air conditioners all turned on full. Rather than having to spin up expensive peaker plants, utilities can call on these two-way charging EVs and have them dump some of their extra charge back into the grid to help power the air conditioners. The utility spends less money. The car owners get a small stipend. And fewer fossil fuel power plants are needed, reducing greenhouse gases and pollution.

Lawrence Berkley National Labs also analyzed the opportunities for V2G in California. They found that if just 30%of workplace chargers and 60% of home chargers allowed EVs to provide power to the grid, it could offset up to $15.4 billion in stationary storage.

While V2G is incredibly exciting, it faces some challenges. At the moment, only Nissan’s Leaf EV offers two-way charging. When I asked the executives on my panel from Tesla and Mercedes about their plans, they both said there were no immediate plans to offer two-way charging because it wasn’t something their customers were asking for yet.

The Freeing Energy Perspective

Renewable energy and electric vehicles are largely separate industries. For the most part today, they only overlap when EV fast charging requirements require changes to the local grid. But, the truth is they are deeply intertwined and they will each have a profound impact on the other. EVs and the huge collective battery storage they represent will prove to be the single best solution for the intermittency of solar and wind. The sooner grid planners begin to embrace the opportunities, the sooner they can capitalize on them and the faster we can adopt clean energy.



10 Responses

  1. Great article Bill and thanks for including some of my statistics and forecasts. Some very exciting V2G estimates from Lawrence Berkley National Labs … but this point from your article is truly frustrating: At the moment, only Nissan’s Leaf EV offers two-way charging. When I asked the executives on my panel from Tesla and Mercedes about their plans, they both said there were no immediate plans to offer two-way charging because it wasn’t something their customers were asking for yet.

    I think with the wildfire safety shutdowns starting to happen in California, I think we will see that perspective change pretty significantly.

  2. Thanks Bill for those really useful facts & insights from your recent panel.
    Although I am convinced that electric cars are the future for personal transport, I suspect large vehicles will soon be hydrogen powdered. When ‘green’ hydrogen can be produced in a large scale cost-effective & sustainable way it will be the commercial fuel for the future.
    On a slightly different note, a bigger challenge going forward is how we can reduce the amount of energy needed to operate buildings. Currently most buildings are not designed to minimise the amount of energy needed to keep them at an ideal temperature. Could an initial aim be for all new buildings to be net-zero energy users? Preferably we should construct zero energy buildings that minimise the energy they use via their design. We need governments to change building regulations so that the whole-life cost of a building is prioritised over the initial construction cost. Maybe even go as far as to not grant planning approval for any buildings that don’t meet the highest standards of energy efficiency & maximum use of renewable energy.

  3. I am disappointed that you are predicting the unfreeing of energy in the U.S. by expanding the AC grid to service electric vehicles.
    A far better approach is to stop pretending that natural gas, because some of it is fossil fuel, will magically go away.
    Electric energy, delivered by natural gas, costs half what the indefensible grid charges. More and more of it does not convert by way of combustion, but rather by fuel cell, as in the huge installation in progress in Connecticut.
    As long as natural gas is a byproduct of the fuel for airlines and trucks, it will be free at the well head, and using it to produce electricity, adds no greenhouse gasses [GHG], compared to flaring it off.
    This GHG free energy is a much less expensive way to deal with long term intermittency and high EV charging currents, than huge batteries, or the expansion of the AC grid.
    Natural gas is a natural 30 year bridge to totally clean energy. Later, if a reformer produces CO2, it can be captured and used. Direct decomposition of methane produces pure carbon, and this has been illustrated on a small scale.

    1. Newt, thank you, as always, for helping continue the discussion. The big benefit of fuel cells is that their lack of combustion eliminates SO2, NOx, etc. Can you explain a bit further about how natural gas can be used to create no GHGs? It’s my understanding that normal fuel cells being powered by natural gas creates CO2.

  4. Nifty info – thanks for sharing.

    Hubby and I aren’t noticing a difference in our power bill charging our EV every night. We have a larger HVAC load than the average human so others might see a slight difference. And I’m guessing that charging a larger vehicle like a semi would increase the load. But I’m still finding it hard to imagine that EV-charging is going to increase our load faster than efficiencies are decreasing it? Do we have math on that?

    Also, all the EVs we’ve had let us specify when they draw charge so we don’t necessarily need the utilities to control this – we already have it set for off-peak. If we got a flyer in the mail from our power company asking that we do it in the middle of the day instead, we’d likely comply if the vehicle is at home during that time. (It’s usually not, though.)

    1. Michelle, I agree it’s tough to see big growth in electricity consumption but consider these trends: 1) efficiency upgrades have been underway for years so many of the early gains have already been counted, 2) there is a shift from natural gas heating (and water heating) to electric heating, and 3) EVs are expected to continue accelerating their penetration for the next twenty years so cumulatively, they will really move the needle.

      I looked through my library and found this report as a good example of predicted growth in electricity consumption: And based on your great question, I’ve updated the article to add it in.

  5. Bill, At present, most, large scale fuel cells create CO2. But in the big picture, if the methane isn’t used, it will be flared off, releasing the CO2, and some other bad stuff. So, in total, using methane doesn’t add to GHG’s untill we are using all of the byproduct methane. By then, likely the fuel cells that separate out the CO2, for other uses, and some of these are in operation, or the reformers, under development, that decompose methane into hydrogen for electricity production, and pure black carbon, which is not dangerous to the atmosphere, and has practical uses, will take over.
    Byproduct methane will decrease, only when we power airplanes, trucks, and trains, in a different way. But renewable methane from tents over stockyards and dairies, and anaerobic digesters, will continue.

  6. Local power companies, when they do both gas and electric, can take over local generation for electric car service stations, by installing DC Transformer coupled solar, on their power line easements across cities. In this form, the solar panels ignore the narrow shadows from the poles and lines. The gas and electric companies can cover the intermittency with methane fuel cells, which have zero GHG impact, until we stop flaring off methane. By that time, the fuel cell or reformer stage can be made to be GHG load free.
    This is the sort of plan that I always thought Freeing Energy was all about.
    The huge AC energy grid is already indefensible from cyber attack, and loses far too much power due to power factor problems, and skin effect. All of this would be much worse by adding the proposed back-and-forth exchange with all of the electric vehicles, What is here proposed, is the UNFREEING of energy, on a massive scale.

    1. Newt, I look forward to your thoughts on my part 2 article. It goes in a very different direction and explains how EVs will allow us to reduce our dependence on the grid.

      In terms of natgas versus powerlines, I’ve not seen any data comparing the net energy losses of the two but my guesses it that leaks represent a net larger amount of energy loss than transmission lines. Also, I think the future of electricity will shift the emphasis (and dependence) on lengthy transmission lines and more towards nearby distribution lines, which will tilt the energy loss challenge a bit more towards electricity.

      My perspective on freeing energy is that virtually everything we do will necessarily be very incremental. So even if natgas/methane has GHG and self-reliance advantages, fuel cells are just too expensive to be widely adopted anytime soon. The grid is already in place so I believe many emerging business models will take advantage of the sunk costs and low marginal costs of using it.

      As a small tactical side note, I believe that shadowing on solar will be reduced to a trivial annoyance in the coming years. I’m involved with a startup that tackles this directly (and very inexpensively) and we’re not the only ones working on this widespread problem.

      As always, I really appreciate your honest thoughts. Please keep them coming.

  7. Bill,
    If fuel cells were too expensive, they wouldn’t be used on a small scale, to power forklifts, or on a large scale, to power multiple data centers in Connecticut.
    I think that your anti-shadow enterprise might profit by comparing methods under a mutual Non Disclosure Agreement [NDA].

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