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How can utilities prepare for electric vehicles?

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • May 3, 2021

Last week New York lawmakers passed legislation to require all sales of new passenger cars and trucks in the state be zero emission by 2035. If you’re having deja vu, it’s because legislation like this is being pumped out at a breakneck pace. California Governor Gavin Newstrom has already signed a similar bill into law, and a couple weeks ago, Washington State legislators passed an EV mandate with an even earlier deadline of 2030.  

Such legislation, incessant talk coming out of Biden’s camp about electric transportation infrastructure, and market trends (batteries are getting cheaper and people want electric cars), all point to a near future full of electric vehicles. 

This is all very exciting for obvious reasons, but an electric future poses some big questions for load management. Assuming driving patterns remain similar, a transition to EV’s will put a ton of new pressure on the grid. 

Human ingenuity is incredible and I wouldn’t bet against it, however the past few years haven’t been encouraging on the load management front. Historical fires in California, that seem to burn every year now, led to rolling blackouts in August, and a nasty winter storm knocked out Texas’ grid in February. If utilities can’t handle extreme weather events now, how will they handle the same extreme weather events when demand is much higher? 

Utilities should learn from the mistakes we’ve seen in recent times. For example, California’s summer should have taught us to not underestimate the consumption potential of residential customers. To this point, at least as I understand it, market-based demand response programs in North America have overwhelmingly focused on commercial consumers. Residential response programs have generally been left to the utilities, and they’re often half-baked. CAISO learned the hard way this summer that residential and commercial customers both deserve serious consideration from a load management standpoint. The operator was able to avoid cutting power thanks to a slew of underfed residential programs—but there were a lot of close calls. Moving forward, such programs should be beefed up. 

Smart technologies that promise energy savings and more data should also be adopted. If regulations make it hard to do so, then the regulations should be ripped up. There’s no reason in 2021 that so many swaths of the country are still without smart meters and smart thermostats. This is low hanging fruit, folks. 

I think it’s also time for utilities to adopt voltage optimization technologies.  For those who don’t know, voltage optimization refers to the use of various distribution devices (like metering, switched capacitor banks, and LTC’s) to alter the flow of VAR on a circuit. Traditionally the flow of reactive power would be moderated, however increasingly the same tools are being used to increase the flow to accommodate excess renewable generation. The advantages to voltage optimization are pretty simple: You can reduce demand during peak times and ensure excess generation doesn’t go to waste. 

It’s important that utilities make these changes in anticipation of a more electric future. However, it’s worth noting that more electric cars won’t necessarily spell more electric consumption. At first, this claim sounds confused. Afterall, trading in traditional gasoline powered vehicles for electric ones will require a lot more electricity. That’s true, but our patterns of behavior become much more efficient. This is a point Stephen Baker, the co-author of Hop Skip Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives (Harper Collins, 2019), made when I interviewed him two years ago for Energy Central: 

“...People tend to assume that new technologies will simply follow the patterns of the old. For example, today you drive around in a gasoline-powered machine, tomorrow it will be electric, and a decade from now autonomous. But you’ll keep following the same itineraries.

This isn’t this case. In the next stage of networked mobility, transportation should be far more efficient. Most of us have cars that are only in service 5% of the time. The rest of the time they’re parked. The idea for networked (and eventually autonomous) cars is to squeeze much more production out of them, most likely as a shared resource. This could dramatically reduce our consumption of energy. Then again, if transportation is cheap and efficient, we might use it much more capriciously, perhaps sending an autonomous car across town for tacos or croissants.”

I certainly hope transportation becomes more efficient this decade and we don’t see electricity demand shoot up. But we can’t count on it. As is always the case in this industry, companies need to plan for the worst case scenario.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 3, 2021

The utilities that don't lean fully into the opportunity to be the one shaping this industry and setting up their customers for the coming decades will no doubt regret it-- it's not just about preparing for EVs, but rethinking what it means about the utility-customer-transportation intersection. Will be an interesting field to continue to watch develop!

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on May 4, 2021

Very interesting indeed. I wonder if private infrastructure providers will accept each respective region's utility services as is or if they'll hunt for different, more competitive providers. 

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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