As EVs Take Off Will A Faulty Energy Infrastructure Short-Circuit Demand?

With more EV purchases in the U.S., there’s more than simple range anxiety. Now there’s plug panic as the aging grid strains to keep up.   George Rose/Getty Images

American motorists are increasingly open to EVs, though the level of acceptance varies widely with strongest demand along the coasts. Nationwide, sales have surged from a modest 1% of all new vehicles at the end of 2019 to nearly 6% in recent months. 

“Just when we finished the walls,” at the new Rouge Electric Vehicle Center, where the Ford F-150 Lightning electric truck is built, “we had to knock them down,” Darren Palmer, Ford’s vice president of electric vehicle programs said. Where Ford initially expected to sell about 25,000 of the electric pickups annually, it’s now targeting 150,000

If anything, EV demand is widely forecast to reach 20% mid-decade, with President Joe Biden laying out a target of 50% by 2030. While traditional automakers initially resisted the shift, they’ve now largely signed on. General Motors CEO Mary Barra talks of “a path to an all-electric future” by 2035. Some brands, including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Bentley and others have set even more aggressive targets of going 100% electric by 2030.

As the EV numbers soar, so do worries about the nation’s electric grid and if it can handle the added load it will experience as battery-powered cars replace those using gasoline and diesel technology. 

EV Infrastructure
The Biden administration’s goal is to have 500,000 charging locations up and running by decade’s end to expand access to public EV charging.  Electrify America

Range Anxiety Makes Way for Plug Panic

There are more new products, like the Lightning, the Kia EV6 and the Mercedes-Benz EQS, entering more new segments. They boast more features, more exciting designs, better performance and, critically, more powerful batteries. Range anxiety has long been a barrier to entry but newer models are generally delivering 250 miles or more per charge, some topping 400, even 500 miles. Now, said John McElroy, a veteran analyst and host of the streaming video program Autoline Detroit, the ability to find public chargers has become one of the most critical concerns for motorists considering an EV.

On the plus side, corporate providers like ChargePoint, Electrify America and EVgo have raised billions in capital. And the Biden administration is doling out cash from a $5 billion budget from the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021. The goal is to have 500,000 charging locations in operation by decade’s end, a sizable share using the latest high-speed technology.

“We’re beginning to make sure our interstate network [and other main roadways] are covered,” said Trevor Pawl, the state of Michigan’s chief mobility officer. The development of “charging infrastructure is moving faster than a lot of people realize,” he said.

Broken Chargers

Perhaps, but it’s one thing to put chargers along highways, another to make sure they’re working. A recent study by EV advocacy group Plug In America found half of its respondents have run into problems using public chargers. Broken plugs are the most frequent complaint. A controversial study published in early 2022 by the University of California, Berkeley estimated only 72.5% of the 657 public quick chargers in the San Francisco Bay Area were operational at any given time.

“If EV owners continue to experience chargers that don’t work as well as expected, that’s going to slow the EV revolution down,” warned analyst McElroy.

From Niche to Mainstream

In practice, “at least 80% of EV owners currently charge their vehicles at their home or office,” said Pasquale “Pat” Romano, the CEO of ChargePoint. But the lack of a readily available—and reliable—public network will become increasingly problematic as EVs go from niche to mainstream. 

“It’s great to be able to charge at home,” said RJ Juliano, the senior vice president of Philadelphia-based Parkway Corp., “But we have to provide power” for the nearly 50 million Americans who rent their homes, as well as the millions more living in condos or other housing where they may not be able to install personal chargers. 

Founded 92 years ago, Parkway is the largest operator of public parking facilities in the U.S. and Canada and is investing millions to be ready for the EV revolution, Juliano said. But simply installing chargers won’t be enough. Not only must they be maintained, but they will need a reliable supply of power.

America’s Appetite for Energy

The U.S. already consumes the equivalent of 30 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy annually, the equivalent of 17 billion barrels of oil, according to government data. As EVs gain market share—and as the country more broadly addresses climate change concerns—the electric grid is expected to take on an even bigger role.

Regulators, utilities and grid operators generally contend that the U.S. has enough energy generation capacity to cover the EVs likely to be on the road through at least 2025, and possibly 2030. But there are plenty of skeptics who question whether the grid can deliver.

“The important thing to expect is that EV growth will be gradual,” said Gary Silberg, a partner and global automotive sector leader with KPMG. Even at 50% of annual new vehicle sales, it will take decades before the majority of the U.S. fleet is battery-powered. “It’s going to come over time which, as long as you’re planning for it, allows you to be ready,” he said.

EV Infrastructure
While most EV charging happens at home, access to public charging is crucial to make a dramatic shift to electric-powered mobility.  Electrify America

California Plugs In

Electric vehicle sales have been rising fast and nowhere is that more apparent than California, a market where environmental consciousness and high fuel prices combine to drive demand to record levels. Through the end of November, Golden State motorists had already purchased more than a quarter-million fully electric vehicles. At 18% of the market total, that nearly matched European demand.

Yet, not everyone in California is sold on the EV revolution. Skeptics point to the repeated blackouts and brownouts state residents have suffered in recent years. Last September, the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, asked EV owners to avoid charging up from 4 to 9 p.m. during a brutal heatwave straining energy capacity. Ironically, that advisory was issued just days after state regulators approved a plan that would phase out sales of internal combustion vehicles by 2035. It raised concerns—even among some EV advocates—if California and eventually the country can make the switch to electric.

Understanding Infrastructure

It helps to understand there are actually four components to the electrical “infrastructure.” There’s the generation of power; the transmission of that energy, often over long distances; local distribution; and, when it comes to EVs, the network of charging stations.

Each has its own challenges and how well they’re being addressed “varies from region to region, state to state and utility to utility,” cautioned Dave Reuter, chief marketing and communications officer for NextEra Energy, based in Florida. Without pointing fingers, Reuter worries that not everyone is moving fast enough to stabilize and grow the electric infrastructure to keep up with EV demand.

Funding the transition won’t be cheap. “King Coal,”which long dominated electric generation, is slowly being phased out, with natural gas and renewables taking its place. One of the big challenges will be stabilizing supplies from clean, but variable, sources like wind and solar. NextEra installed a 945-megawatt battery storage system in Manatee County, Florida on the state’s westside several years ago. Then the largest system of its kind in the world, it can handle enough power to cover peak load demands for up to 4 hours.

At a more local level, we’ll likely see smaller storage systems, perhaps down to a few hundred kilowatts providing backup for individual neighborhoods. General Motors, for one, is experimenting with backup systems powered by “second life” batteries. They will rely on batteries pulled from vehicles that have reached the end of their life, the packs still having as much as 70% of their original capacity.

EV Infrastructure
The grid is getting old and needs maintenance and repair investments as more car purchases are electric.  Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

An Aging Grid

Getting stable energy supplies to EV (and other) customers is proving one of the biggest challenges—as a series of recent events have demonstrated. California has faced numerous challenges, including heatwaves straining both generation, transmission and distribution, as well as windstorms that have brought down power lines. Downed PG&E lines caught blame for a massive 2019 blaze in Sonoma County that destroyed hundreds of homes and caused 100,000 people to evacuate, often just ahead of the flames.

Michigan utilities, notably DTE, struggled to keep the lights on during some harsh weather events in 2021, several of those interviewed for this story pointed out. The issue became severe enough that state attorney general Dana Nessel started leaning on the utility to fix its problems, notably by increasing maintenance along its rights of way.

“The (transmission and distribution grid) is very old, with a quarter of it over 50 years old,” Christine Oumansour, a partner in consulting firm Oliver Wyman’s energy sector, emphasized during a telephone interview. According to the firm’s research, American utility companies and those who manage the transmission and distribution side are investing about $100 billion annually to catch up on what’s going to be needed.

Ford F-150 Lightning
Ford touts its Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck’s ability to power homes as a backup power source in case of blackouts and outages.  Ford

Building a ‘Smart Grid’

Using load management systems, chargers will talk to one another to see how they’re being used. They may collectively slow down if they exceed the available power supply. And they might adjust individually according to the vehicles plugged in. Those whose batteries are low might get more power, for example.

At the same time, what Oumansour calls a “smart grid” will learn to detect and respond to faults. And it will be able to take advantage of the “vehicle-to-load” technology many new EVs, such as the Lightning pickup, are capable of. The truck can be used to provide power to a home if there’s a blackout, Ford notes. But, in the coming years, it could also push power back into the grid when there’s peak demand, essentially using its battery as a backup. And, company officials note, vehicle owners could get paid for providing that power.

For now, and likely well into the decade, those who watch and oversee the U.S. energy network believe they can keep up with the growth of the EV market. But looking further out,  there will be plenty of challenges to cope with. And those won’t be cheap to address. Of course, EVs won’t be the only thing straining the grid. The push to reduce CO2 emissions will impact everything from stoves to manufacturing. Addressing these issues will require government and industry to start working together now, proponents contend. If they do, the transition should be a smooth one. But it will require better planning and significant investments. There’s no time to waste.

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