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Can the Grid Handle EVs?

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June 18, 2021— One of the biggest question marks surrounding the implementation of electric vehicles is whether or not the U.S. electrical grid can handle the demand. With EVs requiring electricity, will that lead to more brownouts and blackouts? Will electricity prices skyrocket? Or should we expect the grid to handle it without too many challenges?

In a recent Autoline webinar, a panel of industry experts discusses what can be expected as EV usage rises in the consumer and commercial markets. The panel consisted of Ben Burns, director of transportation electrification for Michigan-based energy company DTE Energy, and Matteo Muratori, senior engineer for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s center for mobility sciences. 

Here’s some of the main takeaways from the conversation:

“No major threat”

Electric vehicles, while only encompassing two percent of all vehicles on the road currently, are rapidly being prioritized and put into the limelight as the future of the transportation industry. With the influx of EVs, that in turn requires more electricity as the vehicles will forgo the traditional trip to the gas station for at-home charging. 

So to no surprise, the first question asked to Burns and Muratori was simple. Can the grid take it?

Muratori’s answer was clear. 

“We really see no major threat from EVs in terms of the grid being able to support vehicle electrification,” he said. “The key word is planning and that we make sure we know what to expect and when to expect it and the grid can evolve in line with EV adoption.”

Muratori’s department has been doing just that, planning. Over the last several years, NREL has done research and conducted surveys to decipher what the grid will need to handle the demand and if it’s plausible. That’s led him to feel confident the U.S. is prepared. 

Burns agreed, adding that DTE invests $1 billion annually to shore up its sub stations, transformers and other technologies to keep electricity flowing to its 2.1 million customers. 

Muratori even sees an opportunity for EVs to help the grid, although it’s going to take some negotiating with vehicle manufacturers. Muratori believes consumers could use their vehicles to power their houses if any power outage did occur. Modern EVs would have the capability to do so for short periods of time, like a day, which could help supplement an outage until it is resolved. The roadblock is the vehicle manufacturers are their battery warranties, which will often void if the vehicle’s battery is used for anything other than powering the vehicle. 

Burns’ company offers incentives for its customers to charge at non-peak times. This helps address concerns of potential power outages during high-usage times like during a heat wave. The incentives will hopefully lead to more efficiency with the electricity that is on the grid and stop it from becoming overloaded, Burns said. 

Roadway electrification is far away—and may never come. 

A hot topic surrounding charging EVs is the potential of roadway electrification. Research is ongoing by numerous organizations and the feasibility of such a plan, Muratori said. However, in his eyes, it may never come. Simply because it won’t be needed. 

“I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” he said. 

Muratori said it’s likely to happen in small isolated situations, like at a bus stop or at a specific spot for fleet vehicles. He sees it as a realistic possibility for those commercial and heavy-duty vehicles that are travelling many miles every day. The need for a quick charge is important. 

But in terms of large projects like electrifying lanes of highways, Muratori doesn’t see the demand there as 99 percent of consumer trips are shorter than 100 miles and current EVs have a battery life of 300 to 400 miles. He also believes it isn’t realistic to expect it from an infrastructure standpoint in such a large country like the U.S.

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