Climate Change

What will it take for electric grids to meet blossoming EV demand?

To meet demand for everything from electric long-haul trucking to family road trips, utilities will need coordination and technology to make electrical infrastructure more efficient.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

With data predicting a coming jump in the number of electric vehicles on the road in New York State, the New York Power Authority has been scrambling to dot the state’s highways with new fast-charging stations, according to John Markowitz, senior director of e-mobility at the state agency.

But the effort has faced its share of roadblocks, including power grid infrastructure that’s not always up to the task, Markowitz said.

“When we first launched the program, it was really hard to even find a place to put [fast chargers], because they just use a lot of power,” Markowitz told Tech Brew. “We knew where we wanted them to be on the interstates…but sometimes that dot on the map is in an area where the power grid just can’t take that kind of power.”

That is just one of many coordination difficulties that utilities, regulators, and tech companies across the country are facing as they rush to bolster the nation’s energy infrastructure for a pending boom in EV adoption.

Stanford University researchers predicted last fall that EV adoption could increase peak net electricity demand 25% by 2035 as governments compel automakers to phase out gas-powered vehicles and incentivize consumers to make the switch to zero-emission mobility. The heightened load will also come as climate crisis-related weather trends are expected to put even further strains on the grid.

Meeting that demand will require coordinated work and technology to make grids more efficient, if not the expansion of capacity outright, according to Dylan Khoo, an industry analyst at ABI Research.

“You’re going to see, at the household level, one of the main consumers of electricity is going to be electric vehicles,” Khoo told Tech Brew. “Increasing the resilience of the grid is going to be accomplished through making it more intelligent in a big way—not necessarily through many infrastructure upgrades, depending on location. But a lot of it is just going to be around making sure that the demand and the generation can tie up closely and at the right times.”

In New York, the power authority successfully advocated for utilities to publish capacity maps, making it easier to place chargers, Markowitz said. First passed in 2021, the regulatory framework calls for the creation of a centralized database of customer and system information that proponents say will lay the groundwork for more efficient distribution.

“We could zoom in on a particular exit off an interstate and look at individual properties like strip malls, gas stations, whatever, and see, like, ‘Oh, OK, this feeder has enough power; we could put one of our fast-charging stations there. But on the other side of the highway, it doesn’t, so let’s avoid even talking to those people over there,’” Markowitz said. “And we could build these things much faster than before.”

Data as a tool

Data can help utilities use the myriad tools that they have at their disposal when it comes to better coordinating EV charging, according to Ram Ambatipudi, SVP of business development at EV Connect, which offers a software management platform that helps to coordinate utilities, companies, and drivers.

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“As the prevalence of EV charging stations grows…it’s going to create more and more impact on the grid and, and how the grid responds to that through various mechanisms, whether it’s price signals, whether it’s demand response, whether it’s rate structuring—all of those are important mechanisms to deal with the effects of the EV load on the grid,” Ambatipudi said.

In a state where EV adoption has far outpaced the rest of the nation, Southern California Edison (SCE) has been especially proactive in preparing for the effects of these vehicles on the grid, according to Jay Apt, a professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and Department of Engineering and Public Policy whose research focuses on energy grid reliability.

“SCE for a decade has looked at the demographics of likely EV buyers and upgraded local electric service lines…and transformers to handle the increased residential load (most EV owners at the moment recharge at home),” Apt said in an email to Tech Brew.

EV Connect works with SCE on a demand response program, for instance, helping the utility manage and monitor the grid based on signals like heat waves, Ambatipudi said.

“We receive periodic notifications from SCE that there will be an event on the next day to where there will be a need to throttle down the charging mode at the stations that we manage,” Ambatipudi said. “And so we’re able to receive that signal, implement those instructions, throttle down the charging mode of the stations to help with the grid management.”

Future problems

Outside of certain EV hotspot regions, however, utilities have “not been as proactive,” Apt said.

And while home charging of EVs hasn’t meant significant strain on the grid yet, Apt said, the electrification of long-haul commercial vehicles and the demand for cross-country road trips in coming years could present a whole new set of challenges.

“Where things get difficult is if commercial trucks want to go electric,” Apt wrote. “If long-haul trucks switch to EVs, that will require a lot of upgrades to substations near truck stops. Similarly, if a significant fraction of personal cars are EVs on cross-country trips, highway rest stops will need upgrades (some support for that is in legislation passed in 2021 and 2022).”

Khoo said consumer adoption has also already far outpaced expectations around the world due to a combination of incentives and stringent regulations in places like the European Union. He noted that “2050 is now looking really achievable for having every personal car on the road to be electric.”

While utilities still have some years to plan before then, Ambatipudi said that power companies should start testing ideas and building out systems now before markets start reaching inflection points.

“Early planning is important—beginning to test pilots around demand response programs, load shed, load-shift type of programs—even at low levels of charging adoption and impact on the grid,” Ambatipudi said. “What you wouldn’t want to have happen is they really start to think about how to implement these programs at a more critical stage of advancement when those impacts can [affect] their grid.”

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