We Must Keep EVs from Overpowering the Grid

Shock to the system: How utilities, governments and businesses can keep the lights on in an EV world.

April 14, 2022

5 Min Read
Image courtesy of Alamy

Nisar Ahamad

Utility companies are working hard to increase the penetration of clean source generation. There are new technologies like battery storage at the bulk electricity transmission level, and rapid changes are taking place in the distribution segment.

The changes in distribution are in large part driven by customer adoption of new technologies such as solar, energy-efficient at-home devices like smart thermostats, and the electrification of transportation: notably, electric vehicles (EVs).

Last year, EV sales in the US increased by 83 percent. By 2025, annual sales in America could grow exponentially and eclipse 8 million vehicles, the International Energy Agency estimates. Those kinds of numbers are putting electric utility executives in a difficult position. From generation to transmission to distribution, the grid will struggle to meet EV demand for the foreseeable future.

How much of a struggle? Consider that in developed countries, each household uses an average of about 2 kW per day. If they add one or two EVs, their usage could hit 10 kW. Now that’s a shock to the system. And on top of that, not having full visibility into where and how much energy EVs will consume adds complexity to managing the reliability of the grid.

Related:Governments, Automakers Can No Longer Dodge EV Charger Infrastructure Installation

Adding enough capacity to meet that demand, let alone get ahead of the curve, will take enormous investment — the kind that few utilities have on hand.

More Funding for Grid Upgrades and EV Charging

In some countries, government policies are spurring demand for EVs while also providing funding to help utilities catch up. One recent example is the U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which includes $7.5 billion to help build 500,000 chargers. This could alleviate ‘range anxiety’ –the fear of batteries running out of power due to not enough chargers – which is holding back EV adoption.

The IIJA has also earmarked an even larger amount — over $11 billion — for a variety of grid modernization projects, plus $21.5 billion for clean energy. This includes grid-scale energy storage that will be key for making wind and solar viable sources of power for EV charging.

For example, grid-scale battery energy storage systems (BESS) give utilities another tool for meeting demand surges in the evening - when EV owners plug and charge their vehicles. BESS also helps make the grid more resilient, such as by enabling microgrids that can maintain power when storms or wildfires knock out transmission lines.

Many utilities also are deeply subsidizing EV charging stations. For example, in the U.S., a power company will cover up to half the cost of charging stations at apartment complexes, offices, and other businesses.

Related:Round Up: EV Charging at Home

The programs benefit utilities by spreading demand around by both geography and by time of day. So, EV owners have more options for charging— like when they are at work or at a store. It lightens the load for the substation and other infrastructure serving their neighborhood.

Furthermore, as the complexity of the grid increases with EV charging demands, so do demands for reliability. We need to move from high to ultra-high availability uptime of 99.9 percent, to avert penalties levied by governments and stakeholders for system downtime, which could easily equal an electricity company’s profitability for a year.

To achieve this, EV companies will need to extrapolate data from the grid ecosystem and share it with diverse applications. This is where the application of distributed intelligent computing “edge nodes” could be of great value. They can process vast amounts of data and make predictions about performance, the ecosystem on the grid and importantly, future reliability.

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) data insights from these analytics engines could power Internet of Things (IoT) and digital twins. These could accelerate uptime availability to 99.9% to account for extra loads on the grids systems from EV charging stations.

All Together Now

The relationship between power companies and EV companies is that of mutual benefit. Each one spurs the growth of the other. EV adoption by customers will help address some of the power companies’ challenges such as integrating renewables and DERs rapidly, the need to engage with their customers with new sets of services, and most importantly spur demand for electricity, which was stagnating. EVs also have the potential to be a tool available for power companies to manage their grid more effectively.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that generation, transmission, and distribution are all capable of meeting burgeoning EV demand. Building elaborate charging infrastructure is a complex problem. It requires coordination between a wide range of stakeholders such as urban planners, infrastructure developers, equipment suppliers, and utilities to come together.

For example, public utility commissions will need to consider how changes to solar credit programs affect homeowner investment in renewable energy that would charge their EVs while alleviating pressure on the grid. Investment in disruptive digital technology to harness siloed data and create visibility across the grid ecosystem will increase the reliability and availability for the EV consumer market.

City councils and zoning boards also will need to provide utilities and businesses with the flexibility to add EV-related infrastructure where it’s needed, such as new substations and transmission lines, and solar-powered charging stations in shopping center parking lots. Like their state and federal counterparts, cities also may need to provide tax incentives and other subsidies to incentivize homeowners and businesses to add charging stations.

That’s a lot to consider and do. The good news is that some of this work is well underway. In the process, it shows what’s possible, empowering utilities, governments, and businesses to follow suit.

Nisar Ahamad is the Americas Sustainability Lead for Energy, Utilities, and Chemicals (EUC) at Capgemini Engineering. He has more than 23 years of experience building and leading EUC, sustainability, industrial, and communication businesses. Nisar has expertise in multiple engineering functions and has supported teams in AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure), intelligent industry, communications (wireline, wireless 4GLTE/5G), AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning), and product support services.

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