Only about 1% of the 250 million cars, SUVs, and light-duty trucks on American roads are electric vehicles (EVs). But that’s about to change.
While it’s difficult to estimate future sales, an analysis by IHS Markit projects that up to 30% of new car sales could be electric by 2030, rising to up to 45% by 2035. Using those projected growth rates, Reuters estimates that by 2050 more than half of the vehicles on U.S. roads could be EVs. California recently voted to ban new combustion-engine car sales by 2035.
On top of that, the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act and Build Back Better Act are putting significant funds and momentum into the electrification of U.S. transportation. This is likely to accelerate EV adoption and, on a broader level, accelerate the energy transition from fossil fuels to electricity.
Yet despite this momentum and considerable investment, questions remain. Can the power grid handle it when more of what we do “plugs in?”
The short answer is yes … if we act now. In fact, EVs can lead to even greater consumer benefits. If managed strategically, they can be the “driver” behind making our grid more robust and resilient because of increased investment and strategic collaboration.
The 21st Century Grid
When people think of the power grid, they tend to think of generation (power plants and renewables, such as solar and wind) and large, overhead transmission lines. Beyond that, the distribution system is the final stage of the electrical grid that takes power into homes, businesses, and other end users, such as public EV charging stations. It delivers electric power to every user on the grid and steps down the power to safe customer-usable levels.
Until now, most of the attention and investment has been focused on generation and transmission, but distribution should never be decoupled from these two.
The 21st century grid needs more investment in distribution to deliver power safely and efficiently to end users as more charge their vehicles. Distribution systems in residential neighborhoods with particularly high plug-in EV adoption may see substantial load increases, adding more stress to the system.
Focused efforts to strengthen the reliability and resilience of the distribution system are essential to keep temporary faults from affecting the grid. The moment the distribution system goes down, EV charging stops. And as more EVs come onto the grid, the higher the stakes become for the grid to effectively minimize the impact from any disturbance or temporary faults.
The key to preparing for the energy transition and a future of electrification is to think holistically about the entirety of the grid—and to take a systemwide approach to grid investments. This helps manage key pressure points as well as build a foundation for a broader charging network.
The U.S. electrical grid has an influx of new funding, but can it be updated fast enough to support the growing number of EVs on roads? We believe so.
Utilities are at the epicenter of the energy transition. They play an essential role in eliminating as much as 75% of the energy sector’s carbon emissions through decarbonization of the electric power sector and full or partial electrification of transportation, residential and commercial buildings, and small manufacturing.
Utilities operate in a complex environment, where they must support the goals of regulators, minimize rate hikes for consumers, and comply with federal and state policies. Creating alignment with all industry stakeholders and local governments about the vision for the energy transition is the only way forward.
To succeed and make sure the grid is ready, we must continue to build an ecosystem of partners willing to collaborate on a shared vision for the future grid. This work to advance the grid must happen quickly, and it requires commitment and contribution from every stakeholder.
Grid transformation and modernization is vital to electrification, but it requires investment, such as the $73 billion for electric grids designated by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Meanwhile, many utilities are moving forward with modernization efforts. These utilities are prioritizing infrastructure upgrades and collaborating strategically to ensure they meet growing demand and achieve decarbonization goals.
EVs might garner the most attention, but for the energy transition, the grid is the real key to advancement.
—Anders Sjoelin is the President and CEO at S&C Electric Company.