The Technology versus Willpower battle has raged for over a century. Innovative minds have often pushed beyond what was considered logical and possible and, in doing so, changed everyday life. Yet, when internal the combustion engine (ICE), cellphone, and computer were introduced, people resisted the changes they represented.
But change did come about with these and other technologies. The 20th century, in fact, introduced the airplane, the rocket and other interplanetary probes, electronics, atomic power, antibiotics, and insecticides — all of which relied on electricity in one way or another. A consequence of this ever-expanding consumption of electricity in industrialized countries has been the linking of local systems to provide vast power grids, or pools.
We used to think that those grids were sorta miraculous, in that power could be shifted easily to meet changing local needs for current. No longer is that the case, especially with the expected mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). As the Washington Post pointed out recently, converting the nation’s fleet of automobiles and trucks to electric power is a critical piece of the battle against the climate crisis.
While much of today’s narrative about EVs focuses on auto manufacturers and new models, stories about another component of the conversion to all-electric transportation — the grid — need to be told. That is, will the US electric grid be able to overcome challenges and succeed in delivering the necessary clean energy to power all those EVs that are soon to be charging in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and public spaces?
The Biden administration has set goals for EVs to become half of all auto sales by 2030. New York State has enacted a ban on the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars and trucks starting in 2035. A 2020 executive order directs California to require that, also by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the state will be zero-emission vehicles. And those states are only the beginning.
The country’s 20th-century point-to-point grid, delivering energy over long distances, will not be adequate to serve this century’s needs. By 2030, according to a study from the Brattle group, the nation will need to invest as much as $125 billion in the grid to allow it to handle electric vehicles toward transmission line construction and upgrades. That’s $20 billion less than is contained in the current Congressional infrastructure bill.
As the author Amitav Ghosh said, “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and, thus, of the imagination.” The problem of the grid isn’t innovation or invention, as Common Dreams relates, since we have R&D that can put solar panels and wind turbines across the planet. It’s technology versus willpower, as lots of people don’t have a vision of how systemic energy change can build a new world and a livable future.
Embracing that vision is the first step to systemic change.
Where to Begin with Grid Upgrades?
Most of the US electricity transmission system was built in the 1950s and 1960s and was expected to last 50 years. An estimated 70% of the electricity grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old, and the average age of power plants is at least 30 years old. High-tension lines don’t have enough capacity. A 2020 study by New York ISO indicates, for example, that New York’s smaller grid areas could face curtailments of as much as 63% without improvements in transmission as renewables take hold. This would inhibit the 2030 state zero emissions goal significantly.
How will an already stressed system that need expensive upgrades — and perhaps a totally new model of energy production — handle an eventual 2 million electric vehicles and overcome the technology versus willpower dilemma?
Building 22 new transmission lines and operating them for the next 50 years could lead to total emissions reductions of about 6.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, says Cullen Howe, a grid specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s “roughly equal to the total yearly amount of greenhouse gas emissions for the entire US. In other words, building just key transmission projects would enable a massive cut in greenhouse gas emissions.” Cullen adds, in addition to congressional action, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will need to put in place rules that will enable the construction of new regional and interregional transmission lines.
A technology called dynamic line rating, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), refers to the active varying of presumed thermal capacity for overhead power lines in response to environmental and weather conditions. This is done continually in real time, based on changes in ambient temperature, solar irradiation, wind speed and direction, with the aim of minimizing grid congestion. Dynamic line rating reduces congestion on power lines, optimizes asset utilization, improves efficiency, and reduces costs.
A review of optimal management strategies to solve issues of grids impacted by EVs in the Journal of Energy Storage argues that central coordination reduces load variance, voltage variations, power losses, and computational complexity. It also helps in determining EV charging locations but has less customer stratification. Integration of renewables reduces the burden on local grid, optimizes the production cost, and enhances the charging capacity, but it has intermittent power supply. The authors say that centralized coordination becomes more effective to resolve the EVs issues when addition of smooth power from renewables is included in the system.
“Open source software will play a big role, as it has in telecom,” says Shuli Goodman, executive director of a Linux Foundation project called LF Energy. “In the energy sector, rather than having trucks of gear going to individual power stations, upgrades would come via software, instantaneously across large geographic regions.” Goodman adds that, “for a software-defined infrastructure to be optimally deployed, however, utilities need software built with open standards to enable interoperability and to reduce the time it takes for new technologies to integrate with existing infrastructure.”
A CleanTechnica Curation: Grid Technology versus Willpower
We’ve thought a lot about the grid as we share insights about clean transportation and energy here at CleanTechnica. Here are some of those articles, in case you missed them.
Decarbonizing the Grids with Demand Response talks about how interactivity and flexible loads are in response to the limitations of onsite solar generation and even the aspirations of net zero energy.
Grid Resiliency may Include Infrastructure Designed to Fail chronicles how researchers are busy designing future grid infrastructure that fails in a controlled fashion, making post-storm repairs easier and faster to accomplish.
Modern Infrastructure Means a Modern Electric Grid describes how limited availability of transmission lines continues to hinder large-scale solar deployment.
Is Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Tech the Answer to Grid Problems? explains how, since EVs have electricity stored in their batteries, their electricity can be used to supply the grid whenever the vehicle is parked. Such reserve power would be a real plus during peak demands when large-scale adoption of EVs complicates the current energy distribution model.
Final Thoughts about Technology versus Willpower
As with all things new and strange, managing a grid that has the stressor of EVs may require a mélange of solutions. Jainhui Wang out of Southern Michigan University outlines how, if appropriate charging/discharging strategies are adopted, EVs can contribute to power system operation in various ways: load valley filling, line congestion, management, demand response, frequency regulation, increased renewable penetration, and V2G. Tackling the challenges to the grid posed by EVs, Wang continues, will require charging management for EVs through tariff incentives, charging load adjustments through optimal pricing, reducing energy loss through a prediction-based power dispatch, and managing the profit risk of an EV aggregator.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift. There’s no question about it,” says Howe from the NRDC. “Is it technically feasible? Yeah, I think it is. We have the technology to do it,” Howe insists. “The question is, do we have the will?”
Image retrieved from NOAA (public domain)