EVs Offer Significant Growth Opportunity for Power Utilities

Do you drive an electric vehicle (EV)? If you answered yes and live in the U.S., you’re among the roughly 1% of drivers doing so in this country. If not, how soon do you think it will be before you become part of this growing trend—five years, 10 years … never? It’s a question that may not be easy to answer, but the response could be very important for all power utilities.

At the Grid Evolution Summit—A National Town Meeting event hosted by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) in Washington, D.C., in July, EV discussions were a big part of the agenda. Jen Szaro, director of programs with SEPA, opened one session with some statistics about EV adoption in Norway. She pointed out that only 3% of cars sold in Norway in 2012 were EVs. However, that has changed quickly, increasing to 29.1% by 2016, 39.2% in 2017, and 52% this year. Could the U.S. see a similar trajectory? If I was betting, my money would be on no, but I’m a notoriously poor gambler.

Electric Demand Could Skyrocket

Brett Hauser, CEO of Greenlots (an EV charging and grid services software company), noted that each EV in service represents about the same load as the average single-family home. For example, if a subdivision has 50 homes and 10 of the owners drive EVs, the power demand drawn by that community will mirror a 60-home development.

Plug-in EVs consumed about 1.94 TWh of electricity in the U.S. last year, based on data sourced from the Argonne National Laboratory. Although that is just a fraction of a percent compared to the total U.S. electricity demand, it has grown exponentially since 2010, when it was effectively zero. Szaro shared projections suggesting that EVs will be nearly 22% of all U.S. car purchases by 2025. If those estimates are correct, electric load demand for transportation will continue to climb steadily upward.

“There is a great opportunity ahead,” said Mike Waters, director of Utility Solutions with ChargePoint—the world’s largest EV charging solutions provider. “As we look out to 2040 and 2050, electric transportation is a huge opportunity to grow load on the grid. In fact, it’s anywhere from 20% to 38% increase in total load in terms of TWh.”

Influencing Charging Behavior

While EVs offer power companies a nice new revenue stream, it also presents plenty of challenges. Grid capacity will need to be expanded appropriately to accommodate all of the new load. In order to do that, Waters said, companies really need to understand what the load looks like and how it varies by time, location, and use case.

Waters presented three use cases to highlight the differences in customer behavior. He showed how demand varied for workplace charging, home charging, and fleet charging. According to his graphs, workplace charging increased on a steep curve from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and slowly decreased after 11 a.m. through the end of the workday. Home charging was minimal throughout the day, but that curve intersected with the workplace curve around 6 p.m. and increased fairly steadily through the evening, peaking at around midnight. Fleet charging was much less than either of the other two use cases, peaking at around 3 p.m. before slowly declining into the evening hours. Waters said utilities must understand where EV charging is coincident with issues on the grid and look for opportunities to change customer behavior in order to reduce those impacts.

“From a home charging standpoint, that’s the biggest opportunity,” Waters said. “70% [to] 80% of the home [usage is] very flexible, and it’s often actually coincident with some of the load issues that we see in the late afternoon with air conditioning.”

Parina Parikh, development director for San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E’s) Clean Transportation business, said, “The idea that the utility can actually send accurate price signals to incent charging behavior and to cause customers to probably charge when it costs them less is important, and I think that that’s a key role that the utility should and can play.”

A Growing Market

California leads the nation in EV adoption; SDG&E already has nearly 30,000 EVs in its service territory. While that sounds like a lot of cars, Gov. Jerry Brown has set a target of 5,000,000 EVs in California by 2030, which, if achieved, would mean the addition of another 470,000 EVs in SDG&E’s territory over the next 12 years.

“The utility is a key piece in that puzzle of accomplishing the EV growth that our service territory needs to achieve,” Parikh said.

There are several barriers to EV adaption, however. Cliff Fietzek, director of technology with Electrify America, pointed to limited charging station locations as a major factor restraining customer purchases. Electrify America is investing $2 billion over the next 10 years in infrastructure—building a nationwide network of workplace, community, and highway chargers that are convenient and reliable—as well as in outreach and education.

“Customers will drive EVs if you provide the infrastructure for that,” Fietzek said.

Electrify America’s high-power 350-kW charging stations use liquid-cooled cables and can recharge a car for up to 300 miles in 15 minutes. “That’s really the game-changer,” said Fietzek. Its stations are designed with dual-connectors that support all proprietary standards and identical human-machine interface panels that accept credit cards.

“We believe as long as it’s seamless for the customer and it’s not changing their daily habits, then you can do smart charging, you can do load management, [and] you can apply all of the grid services,” Fietzek said. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.