Engineering Explained: Yes, The Grid Can Handle EVs

We’ve all seen it. Insufferable fanatics of fossil fuels, seeking to win an argument against electric vehicles, pull out what they think is the ultimate argument against them: “Where does that power come from?” They have all of their facts from decades ago in order. All power comes from coal-fired power plants, and the fragile electrical grid can’t handle a single extra electron’s worth of demand or the whole thing will burst into flames. They don’t think the electrical grid can handle EVs.

“See? The grid can’t handle EVs. Checkmate, libruls!”

Why do these arguments persist year after year despite repeated debunking? It really comes down to simple lies going up against complex truths. As Mark Twain supposedly said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” It’s easy to say something like “coal-powered cars” or “grid no handle EV” than it is to explain how energy mixes change over time, how electric vehicles use far less energy to move, how the grid has changed in recent decades, or how time of energy use make a big difference.

The challenge of explaining complex truths is why I’m particularly impressed with this recent video at Engineering Explained:

Jason starts by giving us a real look at how large the problem really is. Instead of challenging the assumptions dead-on, he just goes with the raw numbers. A certain number of miles are driven each year in the United States. There’s an average figure of the miles you can get per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Simple division gives us the amount of energy actually needed to supply electricity if all cars were suddenly electric. The final number? It comes out to an increase of about 30% needed to supply all of that energy.

For many EV skeptics, the 30% figure probably seems low. After all, cars use an immense amount of energy to move down the road. A gallon of gasoline can give you up to 33.7 kWh of energy, so that must mean electric cars use crazy amounts of electricity, right? The complex truth to this is that gas and diesel vehicles waste most of their energy making waste heat. The radiator, the hot exhaust gases, and the brakes move all of that energy into the air, leaving only around a quarter of the energy for actually moving the vehicle down the road. So yes, we’d really only need 30% more energy to get it done.

But then again, a 30% jump isn’t exactly tiny, either. But, this is where complex truths have to be considered again. Energy production in the United States was less than 1/4 of what it was in the year 2000. As we electrified more and more things in our houses and got air conditioning, the population was also growing. Energy produced, put into the grid, and used by people went up five times over 40 years. That’s a huge increase!

While it would be nice to wave a magic wand and make all vehicles EV, put in more charging stations, and end the use of fossil fuels for transportation, it’s simply impossible for that to happen overnight. If the United States could increase electricity production five times over in 40 years, achieving just a 30% increase over a decade or two wouldn’t be a major challenge in most places. At past rates of growth, the grid could swallow up the needs of EVs in just 6.5 years. It’s just not that big a deal to make it so that the grid can handle EVs.

But, at this point Jason isn’t done giving us the complex truths we need to truly understand the issue.

It turns out that we must also look at what happens locally and more importantly, when the energy is needed. The amount of energy needed over the course of a month will increase in larger ways than it would at the national level. Homes don’t use as much electricity as businesses, so the actual increase needed for most household will be around 50%. Ouch! But, that extra load is about what it would take for everyone to turn a space heater or blow drier on and leave it running 24/7. So, it’s not the giant grid-breaking issue people claim it would be.

Screenshot from the video showing the “everyone plugs in after work” scenario that overloads the grid.

The problem (and the solution) is that Level 2 charging pulls a much larger amount of electricity over fewer hours, roughly what a clothes dryer pulls. Yes, if everyone came home and plugged their EVs for a L2 charge at 5:30 to 6:00 PM, they would crash the electrical grid. All that extra load at the same time as air conditioning and kitchen appliances would be too much. But, if cars only need to charge for a few hours, there’s plenty of time between then and morning.

Screenshot from the video showing an optimized charging scenario, where a percentage of customers set their car to charge later at night to get cheaper rates from the electric company.

If electric utilities offer incentives to charge one’s car at times when the electrical grid has excess capacity instead of at times when they’d run short, it’s possible to “flatten the curve” and bring the power needs of EVs to within what the grid and power stations are already capable of supplying without needing new lines or power plants. How can utilities do this? Just make it cheaper to charge during off-peak times, and even cheaper in the middle of the night when there’s almost no demand on the grid.

Of course, local situations vary. Some areas use a lot more electricity at night for heating and have more energy during the day from solar and wind power, so utilities would have to tailor their rate schedule to fit their local situation. EV owners, if told about the rates, can program their cars to wait until the best times to charge to keep the bill down.

When you see the graphs, hear the facts, and get a good explanation, it all makes sense. The grid can handle EVs. The problem is that it’s not that easy to explain. So, consider bookmarking Jason’s video. The next time you run into a social media argument, send the link. If you encounter it in person, show people the video or text it to them to watch. The lies saying that there’s no way the grid can handle EVs are already halfway ’round the world. It’s time to help the truth to catch up!

Plus, this is before we even discuss the ways that EVs could turn the tables on grid issues.

Featured image and screenshots from the Engineering Explained YouTube channel. Images used with permission.


 

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