One of the surprising side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying shelter-in-place orders has been the impact on air pollution. With so few people traveling and commuting, air quality across major metropolitan areas has improved.
This current demonstration of cleaner air could sway policymakers and show that air quality can be affected by reducing emissions from the transportation sector. One way to reduce those emissions is with policies that might incentivize people to switch from vehicles with internal combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs).
This possibility coincides with other trends favoring greater EV adoption, such as reductions in the cost of batteries and deployment of more charging stations. That prompts a big question: Will electric utilities be prepared for the load?
Reshaping the Demand Curve
The growing move to EVs is already having impacts on the electrical distribution system, which generally was not designed with the additional EV demand in mind. As more people continue to plug in passenger vehicles, some circuits will be severely tested.
In 2020, all electric vehicles in the U.S. are estimated to require a combined 5 gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity for charging. We estimate that could expand to 25 GW by 2025 and upwards of 75 GW by 2030, based on estimated EV adoption rates.
Finding ways to spread out and balance the demand will be important to flatten out the charging demand and mitigate the peak from everyone coming home and plugging in at the end of the workday. If most users are unlikely to use their EVs for the rest of the evening, there’s no need for it to recharge immediately. If a utility could control and stagger those charging periods over the course of a full night, it could balance the broader charging cycle across its service territory and prevent overloading of circuits. Ideally, customers would be able to set parameters for when the EV is not expected to be used, leaving open the details of when it gets charged during that window of opportunity.
Two-way communications on the grid will be important to develop that kind of fine-tuned control. When utilities can communicate with the inverters at the residential and retail level, their ability to manage grid operations and accommodate increased EV demand is greatly enhanced. Automation within the grid could make that even more efficient. Improving the efficiency of electrical infrastructure may be a more cost-effective option for utilities than upgrading wires and structures; bigger may be better, but it typically isn’t cheaper.
Collaborating for Better Control
This demand-spreading scenario also depends on the nature of the chargers and inverters. These can range from rudimentary equipment to more sophisticated, faster-charging systems. There are numerous manufacturers, and the capabilities of their equipment can vary significantly. Setting up programming for differing equipment will be a challenge, but if smart technology can help spread the demand from charging and better utilize electrical infrastructure capacity, utilities and policymakers alike have good cause to support consumer adoption of that better equipment.
While it might seem improbable that consumers would give that level of control to their utility, the fact is that there is relatively recent precedent: programmable thermostats. Many utilities in recent years have offered free programmable thermostats to customers, offering rate incentives in exchange for allowing the utility to turn off the air conditioning occasionally if certain conditions arise. If a comparable program encouraged EV-owning customers to use specific outlets or equipment that allowed the utility to manage charging behavior within customer-controlled parameters, significant efficiencies might be achieved.
Increased demand on electrical infrastructure from adoption of new technologies is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. has experienced surges in energy generation growth as the grid has accommodated refrigeration, clothes washers and dryers, and central air conditioning, to cite several examples. The nation’s power infrastructure as evolved over time and will continue to do so.
While the near-term precipitous decline in the price of oil might delay or slow the timeline for EVs, the trajectory is still ultimately moving in the direction of electrified transportation.
Electrification of the automotive industry is moving forward as well. Learn about the strides making it happen.