Critics often point to rolling blackouts as proof that the current grid can’t support widespread EV adoption. They have it backwards.
Some of the criticisms leveled at EVs are much more understandably difficult to understand than others, and concerns about the aging US energy grid being able to handle a sudden surge in demand when a few million EVs plug in at once seems, on the surface, to be a valid concern — especially in the face of the 2021 ERCOT Blackout in Texas and record heat pounding the grid in California in recent months. What’s more, “the grid” is a big thing, with lots of players moving things around and lots of armchair experts pushing their opinions out into the Twitterverse.
The good news is that most energy grids in developed nations (which includes the US, but not Texas, for reasons that will be explained shortly) can handle the added load of widespread EV adoption today— but only if they’re managed properly.
Common Misconceptions About the Grid
“The biggest mistake the social media keyboard warriors make is the very strange assumption that all cars could be charging at once,” writes Forbes writer, James Morris. “In 2020, there were 286.9 million cars registered in America. In 2020, while the US grid had 1,117.5TW of utility electricity capacity and 27.7GW of solar, according to the US Energy Information Administration. If all the cars were EVs charging at 7kW [a home charger], they would need 2,008.3TW — nearly twice the grid capacity. If they charged at 50kW [a DC fast charger], they would need 14,345TW — 12.8 times the capacity … that sounds unworkable, and this is usually the kind of thinking behind those who claim the grid won’t handle EVs.”
The reality is that the odds of all EVs being plugged in at once are practically zero. What’s more, EVs don’t need to be constantly connected to the grid — they draw power as needed (in the same way that gas-powered cars don’t all pull up to the pumps at the same time), and “Smart Grid” technology helps connected grids transmit power from where it’s available to where it’s needed in real time … and that brings us to Texas.
The Trouble With Texas
The massive winter storms that powered across Texas in February 2021 caused days-long blackouts across the state — and all that investment in “Smart Grid” technology was powerless to help. That’s because, as many people learned for the first time during the blackouts, Texas has its own, isolated electrical grid.
In the rest of the continental US, all the power plants connect to one of two larger grids — one that serves the Eastern half of the country, and one that powers the Western half (divided by the Rocky mountain range). What that means is that energy produced in one state can be instantaneously used in another, and the utilities can buy and sell energy state to state. With its own grid isolated from that system for political reasons that date back to Roosevelt’s New Deal, Texas couldn’t bounce back the way other states could, and that traumatic memory is triggering a lot of misinformation to spread within the state.
What was it that actually did help Texas get back and running? EVs.
Vehicle to Grid Technology Saves the Day
While millions of Texans found themselves without electricity for days without the ability to run refrigerators or stoves in the freezing temperatures of the 2021 winter, Randy Jones, a retired refinery worker from the town of Katy (outside Houston) and owner of a Ford F-150 Hybrid equipped with Pro Power Onboard had no such issues. He just plugged into his truck, and turned on the lights.
“You’re living your life normally and all of a sudden you’re thrust into the dark. I think it got around 9 degrees,” Jones told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s been in mid-20s and low 30s. You don’t expect that in south Texas. You don’t expect to lose power when we [the US] have nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar power … the truck gave us light at night, TV access to catch the news and weather. It helped give us a little bit of heat and a good pot of coffee.”
The same thing happened earlier this summer, when flash floods in Kentucky drowned out the grid in a number of mountain towns. Ford responded by sending Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickups down to the region to help get crews back up and running.
On a micro level, that’s vehicle batteries powering individual homes or power tools. When you implement the same idea on a slightly more macro level, you’re talking about vehicle to grid (or, “V2G”) technology, which explores some of the ways that electric grids and EV chargers can function as a two-way street, with electric vehicles acting as a ready fleet of batteries ready to be tapped when parked … and they don’t need to be fully charged to be able to help.
“Imagine that after a hurricane or wildfire causes widespread power outages, electric school buses are used to power storm shelters,” Stan Cross, the electric transportation policy director at the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy told the Wall Street Journal. “Electric work trucks provide power to first responders, electrified municipal fleets keep hospitals operating, and the EV in your driveway keeps your lights on, your fridge cold, your phone charged.”
The trouble today is that, while V2G technologies do exist, very few people are using them. What’s more, people with older homes may not be motivated to upgrade their electrical systems to be able to participate in a V2G-backed “Smart Grid,” since the added cost to them might be hard to justify when the benefit they experience might be limited.
The newly passed Inflation Reduction Act, though, does provide substantial incentives to consumers who install home solar and battery backups, and the sort of net-metering hardware that enables those systems to push power back “upstream” to the grid also supports V2G, in many cases, and can generate immediate, self-serving benefits to consumers and developers who take advantage of them.
Daniel Bienstock, a professor of applied physics and applied mathematics, as well as industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia University, backs V2G as the best solution for building up the grid, going forward. “Today, without large renewable penetration, variability is addressed in real-time using conventional generation,” he said. “Large, real-time swings in power flows can be challenging and require proper set up of rapid generation and adequate transmission resources … V2G, coupled with more fully distributed generation, is one of the most viable solutions moving forward.”
They don’t get much smarter than Bienstock, and we don’t think we could say it any better ourselves. So: if worried about the grid? Do your part in making it bigger, better, and more resilient by plugging in your EV!
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