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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

Can the U.S. Grid Handle the Transition to EVs?

Updated: Jan 7

Timing’s everything

Just days after California announced that it would stop selling gas-powered cars by 2035, the state’s Independent System Operator, reacting to record-high temperatures, issued a flex alert requesting that all residents voluntarily reduce their electricity consumption between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The result, unfortunately, was a series of misleading headlines and social media posts.

Misleading hyperbole aside, the issue caused many to question whether the country's electrical grid is equipped to handle the coming EV revolution.

Just the facts …

The reality is that EVs are a very small part of the overall electricity demand on the grid.

  • With more than one million EVs on the road, California leads the country in terms of electric vehicle use. Currently, the state’s EVs account for less than 1% of the overall demand for electricity.

  • If, as projected there will be 5.4 million passenger EVs plus another 193,000 commercial trucks on California’s roads by 2030, they would still only account for 4% of the demand for electricity during the evening peak (4 p.m. to 9 p.m.).

Nevertheless, the situation did highlight the urgent need to upgrade the nation's electric grid.

What’s the problem?

When discussing the grid, it’s important to remember that it’s made up of two, quite different, components. The first component includes electricity generation. The second includes distributing that electricity where and when it’s needed.

The real challenge facing utility operators is managing the uneven demand for electricity throughout the day—and during major weather events.

  • Until fairly recently, energy on the grid traveled in only one direction: from generation (coal and gas power plants) to transmission, to distribution (utility companies) to customers.

  • Fortunately, the grid is becoming far more flexible, with power generation coming from many more renewable energy sources.

Efficiently integrating new renewable energy sources is a critical component of grid capacity planning.

Enter Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Technology

Electric vehicles are no longer simply a means of transportation—they are becoming integrated into the larger energy infrastructure. And, far from overburdening the system, EVs will play a major role in building a more sustainable and resilient grid.

Vehicle-to-Grid, or V2G, technology is emerging as a leading energy storage solution. V2G is smart charging technology that allows car batteries to give back to the power grid. In essence, it treats the high-capacity batteries as tools to power EVs as well as backup storage cells for the electrical grid.

V2G uses bidirectional EV charging to push and pull energy to and from connected vehicles based on the demand for electricity at any given time. The extra energy can be used to power houses, buildings—virtually anything connected to the power grid.

When electric cars are parked (typically 95% of the time), their batteries can become some of the grid’s best assets

  • EV batteries can store energy from renewable sources (like solar and wind) when it’s abundant.

  • They can be programmed to avoid charging during peak hours when the grid is strained.

  • They can put electricity back onto the grid when demand peaks, supporting the grid and preventing blackouts.

All we need is a charger that works both ways

When an EV is charging, alternating current (AC) power is converted into direct current voltage, which is stored inside the car’s battery. If the owner has a bidirectional charger, that DC power can be converted back to AC and either added to the grid or used to power anything else requiring energy.

"Can the grid survive without EVs?

Wat we need on the grid is more storage. We’re buying millions of kWhs of storage – it’s just on wheels."

Jeff Allen, Executive Director, Forth Mobility

It’s still very early days for V2G technology. A number of energy companies are trying to figure out how bidirectional charging could work on a large scale. Approximately 100 pilot programs are currently running worldwide. California’s V2G efforts have been limited to small test programs.

Still, more auto and charger manufacturers are starting to offer two-way charging in some of their electric vehicle options.

  • Ford F-150 Lightning has the ability to power a home for 3-10 days

  • Volkswagen announced it will include bidirectional charging capabilities with all ID models this year.

  • Nissan has approved the first bidirectional charger for the all-electric Leaf

It’s about time. Literally.

Far from posing a threat, EVs can provide a much-needed solution to what is already a highly vulnerable grid. Combining emerging technologies with forward-thinking policies will dramatically improve the grid's flexibility, efficiency, and resiliency. EVs will also give consumers much greater control over their energy costs—allowing them to consume energy when it's least expensive, and send it back to the grid when it's most expensive.

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