During the recent heatwave in California, grid authorities asked owners of electric vehicles (EVs) to delay charging them for a few hours to avoid additional demand at just the time when demand was highest. Ironically, this came only a few days after the state’s legislature voted to ban sales of cars powered by fossil fuels in 2035.
Of course, those who hate the idea of reducing our consumption of oil and gas were gleeful about the irony, using it as a sort of proof that the grid will not be able to handle charging all the EVs, when they start to become dominant. But jokes and name-calling are not the same as facts and carefully considered opinions.
We might begin by pointing out that the grid authorities did not ask EV owners not to charge them. They asked that charging be delayed a few hours. Since many people who own EVs charge them at home overnight, this did not represent any real problem.
But what about the future? We will be increasing EV use all across the country, and we should be sure that the electricity will be there to support them. That truly is something that needs consideration and design. We need to start by looking at whether an all-renewable grid can supply the electric-powered replacements for all the cars we have with all the electricity they need.
Let’s step back and take a look at the broader picture. We will be increasing a lot of things in this country at the same time that we grow the use of EVs. Predictably, we will have more distributed power, and this especially includes home installations of solar power. We will have community solar and utility-scale power generation of all types added.
Technology will change. This is to some degree unpredictable, but some of it is easy to foresee.
We can be sure that demand response will become common, because the move in that direction is already underway. Demand response is rather simple technology that allows utilities to delay use of heavy demand loads during time of high overall demand. If the day is very hot, an electric clothes dryer might not turn on until the utility knows it can cover the demand. Similarly, the time an EV starts to get charged might be delayed until after 9:00 PM. This is under consumer control and can be overridden.
We can also be quite sure that vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology will be coming also, because it is well along in development. If a car and a charger are both built for V2G, a car that is plugged in during the high demand times could supply some of its power to the grid, if the owner allows it. This means that EVs can have a positive effect on the grid, smoothing out demand.
Battery prices are falling fast. According to an article last December at InsideEVs.com, the price per kilowatt-hour of EV batteries dropped from $1,200, in 2010, to $132 in 2021 (bit.ly/battery-price-fall). Also, while we are dependent on lithium in cars today, that may change as better and less expensive types of batteries are developed.
EVs have been less expensive than fossil fuel-powered cars, over the lifetime of the vehicle, for some time, according to an article of June 23, 2021 in The Hill (bit.ly/EV-vs-gas-costs). The market has been in turmoil for most of this year, because of the Russian war in Ukraine, but we hope that will not last forever.
Clearly, we will have more EVs in the future, but just as clearly, many of them are likely to be charged at a time when it is convenient for the grid to charge them. This will seldom represent any problem for the owner, because it will be largely invisible. But also, EVs that are plugged in during the daytime are likely to help even out grid demand by use of V2G technology.
One other aspect of this is that electricity demand will rise as the world converts to use of electricity for nearly all of its major energy needs. However, there is also another side of this story. As distributed power becomes more important, the nature of the grid will be altered.
The design of the grid will need to be upgraded to deal with the EVs that will be coming along in the next thirty years. But we can expect that to happen. With the design upgrades, the grid can be stronger and more reliable because of the addition of EVs.
That change is already coming about. For example, a story at CleanTechnica says that in Maryland, the Montgomery County Public School District is switching to electric buses, but they will have V2G technology to strengthen the grid (https://bit.ly/3SUJbpH).
So, the short answer is, “Yes, the grid will be able to handle all those EVs. Unless we do something really stupid.”