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Electric Cars, EV Charging, The Grid, Technology, & The Future

Electric cars are not a danger to the electrical grid. In fact, they may provide essential services that stabilize it.

Phew, that’s a really long title, huh? But it has to be, because the topic is really big and it affects pretty much everyone who uses electricity or drives a car. That would be most of us. You may not realize it, but civilization is in the midst of a tremendous upheaval. Everything is being electrified, everything is being digitized, and all those digital devices are being connected to each other in ways that would have been worthy of a science fiction novel just a few years ago.

For many people, change is scary. The fact that the pace of change is accelerating just adds to the stress we feel. It can seem like the very ground we are standing on is shifting beneath our feet, unmooring us from what is known and comfortable and forcing us to confront a future we are not ready for.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are always those who see their comfortable business models being disrupted by change and who are willing to spend money to convince people to resist change. The tobacco industry is usually the example cited, but the practice goes back much further than that.

Just a few days ago, The Guardian reported how in 1933, the lead industry mounted a campaign to protect the public (and their pockets) from the scourge of copper pipes. They bombarded local water authorities with horror stories about the danger of copper and convinced building officials across the country to mandate using lead pipes in their building codes. [The word “plumber” comes from the Latin for lead.] As a result, there are some 400,000 dwellings in Chicago that still get their drinking water delivered by lead pipes, and it will cost billions to replace them.

The Sky Is Falling. We Must Run & Tell The King!

The press and social media have been filled recently with anti-EV news designed to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the transition to electric transportation. If they all plug in at the same time, they will destabilize the grid! That’s true. However, the odds of every EV in the land plugging in and charging at the same time are exactly the same as every car and truck pumping gas at the same time. Zero, in other words.

Charging EVs at night will force utility companies to build more thermal generating stations to meet the demand because the sun doesn’t shine at night. First, see the paragraph above. Second, that argument totally ignores the digital revolution that is coming now to a power grid near you. Soon, devices that use electricity — air conditioners, hot water heaters, heat pumps, and electric cars, to name a few — will all be connected to smart systems that will do several things at once.

They will respond to pricing signals to turn themselves on when electricity prices are low and off when they are high. Smart breakers will be part of that digital revolution. Most EV chargers already offer similar services. Anyone who insists that all electric cars will all be plugged in all at the same time is simply being silly. Digital tools will soon allow utilities to manage the demand for charging the batteries in our cars so everyone begins the day with all the range they need while spreading out demand so it can be easily met with existing grid infrastructure and generating capacity.

Utility companies are not run by stupid people. They are professionals with more than a century of experience. They know how to plan for increases in demand. Between 1990 and 2007, demand in the US increased by 20% and yet we never heard any complaints from the the utility industry. The total demand is not the issue. Inter-day spikes in demand are the issue — like when it is brutally hot outside and everybody arrives home and turns up the AC at the same time. In the UK, National Grid knows people will be turning on their teapots just before soccer matches begin and they plan for those events.

With digitization, they will be able to have far more precise control over the grid, raising the supply when needed and lowering demand when needed. Electric cars are and always will be just a small part of the total demand for electricity. In California, the state with the largest number of electric cars, when the sale of combustion engine cars is prohibited in 2035, EVs will account for only 7% of demand. If grid operators where able to handle a 20% increase in 17 years, they should be capable of handling a 7% increase in the next 13 years. So can we all take a breath, step back from the ledge, and stop shouting about how EVs are going to break the grid?

Charging Electric Cars During The Day

Traditionally, owners of electric cars have charged them overnight, primarily because that’s when the cost of electricity is lowest. But now, thanks to a surge in the supply of solar energy, utility companies are finding they have an excess of electricity during the day, leading a group of scientists at Stanford to suggest it might be better to charge EVs during those times of abundance rather than at night.

Okay. The average car sits idle more than 90% of the time. It doesn’t care when it gets charged. A modern EV charger looks for pricing signals and schedules charging when prices are lowest. All utility companies have to do is adjust their rate schedule and presto! EV charging will shift from nighttime to daytime. Problem solved. What’s next?

Well, actually, there might be a little more to it than that. Charging at home only works if you have a charger at home. Lots of people do not. More charging options will be needed at work and in public locations. So, okay. That will take some planning. The United States planned for D-Day and the Apollo moon missions. Is anyone suggesting it can’t figure out EV charging?

V2G & Grid Stability

Wired has a story this week on how vehicle-to-grid systems could stabilize the grid and put cash back in the pocket of EV owners. They must have picked up on the story we did on that topic recently. This is technology that is in its infancy, but is filled with promise. Utility companies and automakers are ramping up their interest in V2G technology in places like Florida and New York City. Volkswagen is one of the first major automakers to make V2G systems available on its electric cars and is conducting real world trials in Europe.

“We feel like EVs can provide the notion of helping make power outages invisible for customers,” Aaron August, vice president of business development at Pacific Gas and Electric, tells Wired. “These are mobile power plants. And with the right configuration, you can weather an outage for hours at a time.”

By using wide-scale V2G, a utility would have a much more sophisticated tool for managing spikes in demand. If truckers park their electrified rigs in a lot at the end of the day, a grid operator could tap into those batteries right as demand is going up. Meanwhile, homeowners could either use their EV batteries to keep their own homes powered or sell that extra energy to the grid.

Jan Kleissl, director of the Center for Energy Research at the University of California San Diego, says, “We can incentivize people that way, but we don’t have any other good way to adjust the load on a smaller time scale, like 10 minutes or half an hour. All those small fluctuations actually matter a lot on the power grid. Being paid for it, then they may be willing to do it. Then we can fine-tune the grid much better than we can do it now.”

Oh, so like let the vaunted free market decide? What a fabulous idea. Set the pricing signals right and people will be banging on the door, demanding to be allowed access to those V2G programs. Great, now can we all calm down, take a breath, and admit that change may not be the big scary ogre in the closet the fossil fuel companies want us to think it is?

Just like the lead manufacturers 90 years ago, they are terrified that their highly profitable business model is crumbling beneath their feet. They are right to feel that way because it is. Someone is about to break their rice bowl and they will say anything and do anything to delay the inevitable.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, so let’s move forward into a brighter tomorrow and stop listening to people who would destroy the Earth for their own personal financial gain. Are those really the kind of people you want messing with your head? Once we stop listening to their lies, distortions, and half-truths, they will lose their power over us, and not a minute too soon.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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