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Electric Cars Are Coming, and Fast. Is the Nation’s Grid Up to It?

GM’s decision this week to phase out gasoline vehicles is the latest in a major shift that will mean drastic new demands on electric utilities. Here are four things that will need to happen.

 

A Chevrolet Bolt being charged at a station in Baker, Calif.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Major automakers are increasingly betting that millions of new cars and trucks over the next decade will be plugged into electrical outlets, not fueled up at gas stations. That raises a question: Is the nation’s power grid ready to handle this surge of new electric vehicles?

Today, fewer than 1 percent of cars on America’s roads are electric. But a seismic shift is underway.

General Motors said Thursday that it aims to stop selling new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035 and will pivot to battery-powered vehicles. California’s governor has set a goal of phasing out sales of new combustion engines statewide in just 15 years. Automakers like Tesla, Ford and Volkswagen plan to introduce dozens of new electric models in the years ahead, spurred on by plummeting battery prices and concerns about climate change.

That shift will have sweeping implications for the companies that produce and sell electricity and manage the grid. Analysts generally agree that it is entirely feasible to power many millions of new cars with electricity, but it will take careful planning.

Here are four big things that experts say need to happen.

29CLI ELECTRICCARS2 articleLarge - Interesting article in the NYT -Electric Cars Are Coming, and Fast. Is the Nation’s Grid Up to It?v

 

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Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For electric vehicles to go mainstream, charging will need to be widely accessible and convenient.

For now, most electric car owners plug in their vehicles at home and charge overnight, though this can require installing equipmentthat can cost up to $2,000. Many states and electric utilities already offer incentives to help defray the cost. And some groups have sought to update building codes to make new homes “charger ready,” though homebuilders have pushed back.

But there are also big challenges ahead.

While it’s fairly easy for anyone with a single-family home and a garage to install a charger, it can be far more difficult for people who live in large apartments or who rely on street parking to find a suitable outlet.

Some utilities, keen on selling more electricity, are looking to expand public charging options, and President Biden has set a goal of building 500,000 new public chargers by 2030. But financing this infrastructure is complicated, and will likely require public spending and coordination from governments.

One recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used detailed modeling to see where it might make most sense to build all this infrastructure. New chargers on residential streets, as well as high-speed charging stations along highways, would go a long way to supporting an electric-vehicle boom.

If every American switched over to an electric passenger vehicle, analysts have estimated, the United States could end up using roughly 25 percent more electricity than it does today. To handle that, utilities will likely need to build a lot of new power plants and upgrade their transmission networks.

“There’s no question that utilities can do this, but it’s not going to be trivial,” said Chris Nelder, who leads the vehicle-grid integration team at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “It takes time and money.” In a recent study, his team found that many utilities and vehicle fleet managers planning to go electric have yet to fully grapple with all the challenges involved.

For instance, Mr. Nelder said, if a transit agency wants to buy 100 new electric buses and charge them overnight, it will suddenly need large amounts of power feeding into the bus depot, potentially requiring new substations and other equipment that could mean million-dollar investments.

“That’s not something utilities can just do next week,” he said. “It takes a lot of careful advanced planning.”

There’s good news, too. In 2018, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute looked at what a shift to electric vehicles would mean for the power grid in every state. While Americans would likely pay more for electricity as utilities made necessary upgrades, that would be offset by fuel savings from not having to buy gasoline anymore.

“While it’s challenging to predict the future prices for gasoline, electricity and vehicles,” the researchers wrote, “we believe it is likely that the widespread use of EVs would reduce the overall costs of transportation in California and elsewhere. These savings are even greater if the environmental benefits, especially lower carbon emissions, are taken into account.”

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Tesla superchargers in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

For many utilities, the biggest challenge will be dealing with not just how much electricity new vehicles are using, but when they’re actually using it.

Take California. The state has a surplus of solar power during the day, but that ramps down in the evening as the sun sets. If millions of Californians with electric cars came home in the evening and immediately started charging all at once, it would put a major strain on the grid — and this in a state that has recently been suffering from blackouts.

One solution, experts say, is for utilities to get more creative about juggling exactly when electric vehicles charge their batteries, so that they don’t all power up at the exact same time and overload electrical equipment or require the construction of costly new power plants.

Some electricity providers are already moving in this direction.

Southern California Edison, which operates outside Los Angeles, offers electric vehicle owners drastically cheaper rates if they charge up during the day, when solar power is abundant. Dozens of utilities have been exploring the possibility of taking control of chargers themselves. In some programs, vehicle owners can plug in their car and specify when they will next need to use it, and the utility charges up the battery when electricity is cheapest and most plentiful.

These programs are tricky to get right and often require significant regulatory changes, but they can make a huge difference. One 2019 study by Boston Consulting Group concluded that utilities could reduce by 70 percent the costs of grid upgrades over the next decade by shifting to “optimized” charging.

Transportation now accounts for one-third of America’s greenhouse gas emissions each year, and electric cars and trucks are widely seen as a crucial part of the solution to climate change. But it would help if the electric grid that fueled these vehicles got a lot cleaner.

Today, electric vehicles in the United States usually produce fewer overall emissions than their gasoline- or diesel-fueled counterparts, even if they’re plugged into a grid that relies on power plants burning coal or natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide. That’s largely because electric motors are so much more efficient than internal combustion engines.

But there’s room for improvement. Electric vehicles would be even cleaner if utilities switched away from coal and natural gas and leaned more heavily on low-emissions sources like solar, wind or nuclear power.

That combination could have a powerful impact: One recent studyby Carnegie Mellon University found that if America’s grid was close to emissions-free, and if about 84 percent of all vehicle travel was electrified, transportation emissions from light-duty vehicles would fall by 90 percent. (The decline in emissions could be even faster and larger, the study found, if policymakers took actions to reduce reliance on driving, such as expanding public transit or encouraging biking and walking.)

“The grid is getting cleaner over time, but it’s still not at zero emissions,” said Constantine Samaras, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the paper. “If we want to fully decarbonize transportation, we need to do everything, and do it at full speed: fewer vehicle miles traveled, electrify nearly the entire passenger fleet, and clean up power plants.”

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Brad Plumer is a climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. At The Times, he has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape in the United States. @bradplumer