EVs Will Overload the Grid: 5 Ways the Industry Must Self-Correct

What is the impact of all electric vehicles (EVs) today and what will be the transformative effect on the grid and energy market? In recent data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), the U.S. had 764,666 light-duty vehicles sold (third in sales behind Europe and China). PEV and PHEV sales are projected to reach 20 million globally as early as 2025, which is still a small portion of the current 76.5 million new car sales in 2017. The takeaway is the opportunity for growth is significant, as only 0.9% of vehicle sales in the U.S. were PEVs and PHEVs.

At the center of all EV technology is the need to provide charging. Recent published research by the journal Nature Energy provides an excellent overview on the U.S. grid and the impact of uncoordinated EV charging. The research presents some obvious issues and opportunities.

Charging technology is categorized as:

  • Level 1. Slowest, with nominal voltage at 120 V, and more important, 1.92 kW.
  • Level 2. Faster, with nominal voltage at 240 V, and while rated for up to 19.2 kW, typically operated at a significant 6.6 kW.
  • Level 3. Fastest, charging an EV in 30 minutes or less, at higher voltage (480 V) making it impractical for residential charging.

Why does this matter? In one example of a mix of Level 1 and Level 2 chargers, and assuming as few as six homes on a residential transformer, significant peak loads result with as few as 25% (two homes in the NREL analysis), and as important, early failure rates that are orders of magnitudes greater. Also, typical residential transformers are designed to operate most efficiently at low load, not high load, further decreasing the total life of the transformer.

EVs also place demand on the grid as potential mobile—or roaming—point loads, and as potential sources of generation in spot markets for energy or participation in disaster recovery and response.

Moreover, EVs depend on charging levels and the time required to charge. This, plus the location of charging, has a significant impact on the growth and overall adoption of EVs. Manufacturers of charging equipment and EV producers (PEV and PHEV) need the price performance curve of charging devices to continue trending toward increased performance at a lower price.

As the Nature research points out, multiple models are required to more accurately characterize and predict the impact before the grid encounters greater crisis levels. How will the industry self-correct? Here are five ways to do it.

  1. Close Gap Between Data and Knowledge. Developing multiple model environments is critical, but so is properly leveraging real-time sensor data, and few industries have seen the explosive growth of this kind of data as the Smart Grid-combined sector. It underscores the huge discrepancy of available data that has yet to be translated into actionable planning and knowledge.
  2. Focus on Distributing the Problem, and the Opportunity. With the available data sources, targeting an aggressive transition to a much more distributed grid only makes sense. Short of replacing virtually all of the existing electric infrastructure, the next best option is to distribute generation sources closer to loads and minimize the potential loss or reduction in the interconnected grid strategy. Do not abandon centralized generation or infrastructure, instead make it more robust and fault tolerant as we transition to PEVs/PHEVs. Specific opportunity targets exist in areas such as deep-sea ports where load and generation possibilities are obvious if the right financial incentives are also there for the port owners and operators.
  3. Incorporate Greater Levels of Renewable Generation. Existing generation and distribution utilities face planning challenges every day. The ability to incorporate advances in coincident technologies with different market drivers will reduce cost and risk for regulated and deregulated utilities to incorporate more renewable generation. The fact that lithium-ion battery technology has now become the de facto standard in grid-scale energy storage is a great example. The cost and technology drivers for grid-scale energy storage are largely the result of vehicle markets, but utilities benefit from those same cost drivers.
  4. Market Focus on Growth of EVs Beyond Vehicle Sales. Very little of our existing economic and capitalization strategies for residential consumers of PEVs/PHEVs consider the trends and desires of potential EV owners. Regardless of what happens to Tesla in the long run, the impact it has already had on adoption of PEVs/PHEVs, energy storage, and charging station planning is profound. But consider other opportunities to embrace market-based strategies to impact the bottom-up approach. Most people travel beyond the 40- to 250-mile range of the typical EV. So, where you charge and how you pay for charging are issues and opportunities (remember the early days of cell phone roaming charges) that require the same types of advanced modeling and data.
  5. Localized Generation Reduces Cost/Risk. Local generation can provide cost-effective options for building owners and other businesses; solar and energy storage especially could reduce the apparent demand for PEVs/PHEVs on aging infrastructure, while lowering energy rates/tariffs. For residential and the community at large, this represents multiple levels of risk mitigation.

EV technology presents either an opportunity or a crisis, depending on how the industry acts. It is worth remembering that the opportunities are dependent on an interconnected grid and, in parallel, a communications grid to achieve economic growth while reducing costs and greenhouse gases.

Kevin Meagher is senior consultant with QiO (https://qio.io/). QiO uses artificial intelligence to help companies streamline and automate supply chain and manufacturing workflows and processes for greater efficiencies.