Will Electric Cars Overload the Power Grid? Or Fix It?

Will electric cars overload the power grid? This is a question that’s been raised recently, and one of people’s biggest concerns when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs). Is there any legitimacy to the question or will electric cars actually do the opposite and fix the power grid?

Many experts are convinced that the power grids in countries and states around the world will be able to handle the extra demands from electric cars. Not just that, but an increase in electric cars might actually be able to fix some of the issues our power grids currently face.

It’s true that global transportation systems are becoming increasingly electrified. It’s also true that this will require additional energy from the power grid. However, many experts are sure that we can not only handle extra demand but that in countries like the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia, electric cars will actually fix the power grid.

Let’s take a look at how different areas of the world are preparing for this increased energy demand, as well as how they anticipate it can be a positive thing in the long run. 

The Impact of Electric Cars on the Power Grid

Blackouts—one of the first issues mentioned alongside claims that the world’s power grids can’t handle projected increases in electric cars. By 2030, there will be an anticipated 125 million electric cars on the road. To put things into context, we’re hovering around six million right now. With this sharp increase in electric vehicles, the thought of meeting electricity demands is admittedly a daunting one.

Some countries are prioritizing a shift away from petrol-fueled vehicles and with prices of EVs becoming more affordable each year, the trend towards roads filled with Teslas and Nissan LEAFs will undoubtedly continue.

However, this means that more and more people would be plugging in to residential grids. The concern is that the electrical distribution networks sourcing neighborhoods and urban areas with power aren’t ready to provide additional loads.

All of these claims and worries are made with one main assumption—that we’ll need to power EVs with current power grids and without any technology or behavior changes. Faulty grids with no upgrades contributing to blackouts and brownouts? Sure, that’s a possibility.

But what if EVs provided much-needed incentive to not only be able to power an increasing number of electric cars, but also fix the power grids themselves?

United Kingdom

Much of Europe is preparing for a transition to electric cars. The UK has plans to ban fossil fuel-powered cars in the next couple of decades. With more internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) being replaced by EVs, estimates indicate that brownouts in the UK could begin as early as 2030—when there are as many as 10.5 million electric cars on the road.

However, all of this is based on the assumption that governments will either do nothing or simply scale up existing networks. Charging alternatives have been proposed that will not only alleviate concerns about power grid overloads but will also contribute to a transportation future that’s even more sustainable.

Many experts believe that by meeting future energy demands, bad driving habits will have to change—which is a good thing for power grids and the planet. Current and future EV drivers will need to consider charging their vehicles during non-peak hours and when renewable energy sources are highest.

They’ll also need to consider using rapid charging stations and car park EV charging—meaning less charging on residential power grids. Fortunately, the government is making this easier with infrastructure changes that increase the number of public charging stations. And it can do so with enough power to “support a nation full of EVs.”

Not only is the power grid expected to be able to handle the increase in electric vehicles, but electric vehicles are also expected to help support the power grid. Great Britain’s electric vehicles may actually be able to store 20% of GB’s solar energy—saving it until it’s needed elsewhere.

Electric cars might put the key into the ignition of a decarbonized transport sector. Smart charging and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology could allow the country to use renewable energy more efficiently and return power back to the grid during periods of peak demand. 

North America

In North America, some provinces and states have goals for a transportation future responsible for less CO2 emissions. While power companies know that some challenges lie ahead, they’re ready—and excited—to take them on. Most Canadian provinces have excess generation capacity now, that is many times sold at a loss to other states. Meeting increased demand driven by EVs would not only be possible, but also profitable.

Just across the border in the US, vehicular electrification has been expected to increase national energy consumption by as much as 38% by 2050. While this would require significant energy increases in certain states (upwards of 55% in Maine), proper planning means that the US would be more than ready to handle this.

Like elsewhere in the world, smart charging strategies would mean that charging happening during non-peak hours could be done easier, and more sustainably. An EV could be plugged in but charging technology would only send energy when a sufficient amount of energy is available.

If the charging is done in such a way that is smarter, utility companies will be able to produce energy at quantities closer to capacity. This is not only environmentally cleaner but also means lower rates, too.

Similar to what is possible in the UK, experts in North America are excited about the capacity of EVs to store energy. An EV is a “battery on wheels.” Vehicle-to-grid technology means that electric cars can take on extra power from renewable energy sources. In peak hours (during the day), that stored energy can be returned to the grid. EVs can be plugged back in for recharging at night when demand is lower.

Australia

Concerns about power grid failures are just as prominent in the Southern Hemisphere as they are up North. Like elsewhere in the world, Australia is ready to handle an increase in electric cars—as long as they’re smart about meeting demands.

A typical charge requires about 6-8 kWh of energy—equivalent of a small household. If everyone were to plug in their cars when they arrive home from work at 6 pm (which is also when everyone is cooking and watching Netflix), the grid could quickly become overwhelmed.

However, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case and one of the most effective solutions is also one of the most simple solutions—charge EVs during non-peak hours. If EVs are charged overnight when there is more capacity, it may take longer but it’s also much better for the grid. A smart charging system would make this possible.

Vehicle-to-grid innovation is also being rolled out in Australia and may help EVs ‘fix the grid.’ Electric car owners could use their cars to transport, store, use, and even sell energy. If this sounds complicated don’t worry, it’s not. Digitalization would mean that all of this could be done without the driver taking any action.

It would be as simple as plugging in and letting the vehicle and grid technology do the work. V2G charging units are in their final stages of testing and could be available in the Australian market by the end of 2020.

It’s All Good for the Grid

While it’s definitely true that more electric cars on the roads will also require more power, it’s also true that this can improve power grids around the world. Smarter charging will require some changes in driver habits but will also help support the grid. Vehicle-to-grid technology means that the sustainability of EVs will get better as they can serve as batteries for renewable energy and help prevent grid overloads.

The electrification of the transportation sector is coming. Utility companies and drivers can benefit from these changes. Making appropriate changes now will mean an energy sector that is more effective, profitable, and sustainable in the long run.