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How Electric Cars and Trucks Improve Grid Reliability

As the western United States faces a record-breaking September heat wave that strains its power grid, some have wondered if the region — and the country as a whole — can handle the growing number of cars and electric trucks. Some of this, of course, is just bloviation from ideologues who want to keep Americans dependent on oil, as explained here.

Misleading hyperbole aside, it’s reasonable to ask whether our power grid can handle all the electric vehicles (EVs) we need to tackle the climate crisis (which is actually responsible for the thermal emergency straining the power grid today).

The short answer is: yes, electric vehicles can easily be charged when there is spare capacity on the grid.

The longer answer is: electric vehicles can to improve network resiliency and reliability, especially if we put common sense policies and technologies in place. This means encouraging EV owners to charge when electricity is plentiful and cheap, and deploying technology so that EV batteries can not only draw power from the grid, but also provide backup power. to homes and supply the network during periods of intense stress.

Electric vehicles are not a problem, but a solution to support the network.

Electric vehicles can absorb solar and wind generation when it is plentiful, be easily programmed to avoid peak hours when the grid is strained, and have the potential to put power back on the grid when demand peaks, supporting the network and preventing outages.

Policies that advance EV adoption are not in conflict with efforts to continue switching to renewables, but a means to achieve those goals and improve reliability. For example, California’s recently adopted clean car standards will put an estimated 14 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2035. If they were battery-electric vehicles capable of putting power back on the grid , this would represent a collective battery that could theoretically power every home in California for three days.

Achieving this vision would require the deployment of technologies that enable electric vehicles to deliver electricity to the grid that have already been proven but have not yet been widely deployed. But this is not science fiction. For example, the electric version of the Ford F-150 pickup truck (which has been America’s best-selling vehicle for decades) is now being delivered to customers across the country with the ability to power a home for 3-10 minutes. . days (or power the tools needed to build a house). And even the simple act of providing backup power to a home has system-wide benefits, because it’s one less home that needs grid electricity when others need it.

Picture of Ford

How electric vehicles are like pumpkin pie.

When skeptics question the viability of more electric vehicles on the grid, they start from an overly simplistic premise: with the Western grid under strain, the addition of an additional source of demand for electricity overwhelm it?

This premise misses two important facts about the grid and electric vehicles:

  • First, electric vehicles represent only a very small part of overall electricity demand and will not become a significant part of electricity consumption, even with millions more electric vehicles on the road. Even in California, which already has more than one million electric vehicles on the road, these electric vehicles currently represent less than 1% (to be precise, 0.4%, according to the underlying analysis carried out by the California Energy Commission) of global electricity demand. To say they are what strains the grid ignores 99.6% of today’s challenge. And even if there were an additional 5.4 million electric passenger vehicles and 193,000 commercial trucks on California roads by 2030, they would still only account for 4% of electricity demand during the evening peak ( 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.).
  • And, second, the electrical system is built for the most demanding time of the year, but every two hours there is excess capacity. And, in almost all cases, EVs don’t need to draw power during these stressful times.

Think of an electrical grid like your oven. It’s more than big enough to cook a typical meal. But, on Thanksgiving, the oven will be on most of the day and will face competing demands in the hours before dinner to cook turkey, Brussels sprouts, stuffing, and more. But EVs are more like pumpkin pie, which can be baked the night before to keep the oven available for the things you need to serve hot come dinnertime.

Electric vehicles do not need to be recharged during the times of the year when electricity demand peaks; they can easily be loaded when there is a lot of excess network capacity. Much has been made of the California grid operator asking consumers to help avoid potential outages by setting their thermostats to 78⁰F and avoiding electricity uses like charging electric vehicles during the hours of 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., but during this extreme heat emergency, that still leaves another 19 hours a day for EV owners to “refuel” their cars.

This is exactly what EV drivers are already doing on a daily basis with “time-of-use” electricity rates (which reflect the fact that electricity is plentiful and cheap during off-peak hours). We know from hundreds of thousands of real data points that EV drivers at such time-of-use rates get 90% of their charge during off-peak hours.

Widespread adoption of electric vehicles can support the power grid while saving money for all utility customers.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found enough spare capacity in the nation’s electric grid to power nearly 200 million light passenger vehicles if the load is properly managed. That means we could potentially electrify 73% of the US passenger vehicle fleet without building a single new power plant.

And because electric vehicle charging takes advantage of the unused capacity of the electric infrastructure that we have already paid for while generating new revenue (money that would otherwise go to oil companies), they allow all customers to save money on their bills. During the years 2012 through 2019, California electric vehicle drivers generated $806 million in revenue above the associated costs, money that was automatically returned to utility customers in the form of tariffs and lower bills than they otherwise would have been. (And, of course, electric vehicles are cheaper to own and operate than a similar gas-powered vehicle.)

What if everyone had an EV? The NRDC teamed up with researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to model what would happen if all household in the San Francisco Bay Area owned an electric vehicle. This analysis showed that if only 30% of electric vehicle owners switched to time-of-use utility rates, it would reduce the need for grid investments. Fortunately, almost as many customers in the region with electric vehicles already benefit from such tariffs based on the hour of use. The analysis also demonstrated that a more comprehensive adoption of smart charging strategies could entirely eliminate the need for grid upgrades.

An electric vehicle is a battery on wheels that can support the grid.

Using electric vehicles like the batteries they are would help the overall power grid during times of stress. As Axios put it: “As more cars plug in, EVs could actually make the grid more resilient by delivering power to the grid when it needs it most. »

A separate Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found that simply programming vehicles to charge when there is spare capacity could save $1.5 billion for stationary batteries. And enabling so-called “vehicle-to-grid” technology, when electric vehicles would actually supply power to the grid during times of stress, could save $13-15 billion in stationary battery costs. .

“By removing the need to build a new fixed storage network, electric vehicles can offer the dual benefits of decarbonizing transportation while reducing investment costs for widespread renewable energy integration,” the researchers concluded. Simply put, it is cheaper to pay individual utility customers to use wheeled batteries they have already purchased and paid for than to pay companies to buy large batteries and park them on the grid.

A change is coming.

Let’s be clear: the climate crisis is upon us – this record-breaking heat wave in the West is just the latest manifestation. In order to tackle this crisis, we need to eliminate tailpipe pollution by powering our cars, trucks and buses with an increasingly clean, agile and resilient electricity grid. Using the right policies and technologies, electric vehicles will help with this transition – and also put more money in our wallets along the way. This is why we need more electric cars, trucks and buses, not fewer, and why we need policies like California’s Prop 30 that will accelerate EV adoption.