EVs and Security and Heat Waves, Oh My! Facing the US’s Power Grid Issues
From freezing temperatures to blazing heat, the US power grid is under a massive amount of strain. If it can't handle the weather, how will it handle EVs?
While EV and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) sales aren’t yet dominating the automotive market, electrified models are starting to woo US buyers more than ever. They are even becoming a primary focus for both congress and automotive makers all over the world.
Two graphs showing the global EV adoption through registration (left) and market shares (right). Image used courtesy of Pew Research Center
One major challenge towards further EV adoption is how to power them, especially as the industry continues to grow. Whether via a home outlet or formal charging infrastructure (or networks), daily demands for electricity will keep increasing until EV battery ranges can rival those of internal combustion engines. Even still, as charging networks spread and extended commutes become viable, charging will be synonymous with filling up. Driving habits will determine how often consumers must charge their EVs. Whatever the case, the US power grid must meet heavy demand to enable widespread EV adoption.
Before delving into the challenges that the grid is currently facing, it is essential to understand how the grid is composed.
Electrical Grid Composition
The US power grid, which some refer to as the largest machine globally, comprises three regional systems called interconnections.
They’re as follows:
- The Western Interconnect: extending from the Pacific to the western Rockies
- The Texas Interconnect: covering most of Texas and governed by ERCOT
- The Eastern Interconnect: stretching from the Atlantic to the Great Plains, including small portions of Texas
Wholesale and retail markets span these divides and many other areas, often impacting how consumers receive power. Interestingly, each interconnect operates more or less independently. The grid is divvied up to provide greater overall stability, redundancy, and multiple flow pathways. This macro snapshot helps understand the US grid’s structure.
A high-level view of the US power grid. Image used courtesy of PLH Group
However, the underlying infrastructure is quite complex as large machines have plenty of moving parts. Accordingly, the US power grid is built upon a national network of over 7,300 power plants, roughly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of distribution transformers and low-voltage power lines.
These grid components are spread across multiple states and run from centralized stations to decentralized networks to deliver power. Though this layout has been around for a long time, the age and increase in demand are causing these systems to falter.
Understanding Statewide Demand
It’s noteworthy that EV ownership will impact states and regions differently. States like California, Hawaii, Washington, and New York have experienced greater demand for EVs, with sales figures outpacing those in other areas.
Just like applications, user activity fluctuates based on location and time of day. State power companies must effectively balance the load to accommodate competing usage spikes.
Companies and legislators are now asking how and when EVs should charge to ease their transition to the roadways. While the grid can typically store excess electricity in specific scenarios, some stations can only deliver electricity based on real-time demand.
The status of which states have or don’t have grid energy storage. Image used courtesy of University of Michigan and the Center for Sustainable Systems
Providers must understand how much electricity charging stations (homes aside) require to plan accordingly, as evidenced by Seattle City Light’s 2020 charging station experiment.
A typical EV consumes roughly 30 kWh per 100 miles traveled, thus matching an American home’s average daily energy consumption. Regulators and utility companies need to scale this expected consumption and measure it against their total output. This scaling will determine if charging patterns and multi-hour charging periods will work favorably or not.
A few states are already trying to establish this focus. The California Energy Commission has highlighted the importance of ramping up peak-hours delivery instead of boosting base grid capacity. The Colorado Energy Office and the Michigan Public Service Commission echo this viewpoint.
Officials are emphasizing solutions like time-of-day-based charging rates, load management, and creating a renewables surplus. These aim to ease the stress on the grid and free up capacity for other outlets. California especially is building standalone micro-grids comprised of solar panels, batteries, and backup generators to provide specialized EV capacity.
Challenges and Unplanned Strains
The US grid produced 4.01 trillion kWh of electricity in 2020, primarily made possible by natural gas, oil, coal, and nuclear sources. However, renewable alternatives like wind and solar are also gaining ground.
The US’s projected energy generation. Image used courtesy of EIA
It’s expected that greener electricity power could help supplement (or replace) much of the US grid’s existing output, though questions over reliability, efficiency, politics, and economics could impact that growth.
Accordingly, the grid’s overall capabilities must expand to accommodate EV ubiquity. The US Department of Energy says that EV popularity (and other forms of electrification) could hike national energy consumption by 38% by 2050. The significant advantage of EVs is eco-friendliness. For these vehicles to remain “fully” green, the rise of renewables could be pivotal. Otherwise, the US could face a somewhat ironic outcome should fossil fuels enable EV distribution.
How many more plants and stations will engineers have to man to meet this demand progressively? How many more miles of electrical wiring is needed, especially as power sources move offshore? These uncertainties will shape the grid’s evolution in the coming decades, as will these upcoming factors: extreme weather and cyberattacks.
Heat Waves and Cold Spells
Weather patterns have always impacted grid hardware in key areas over the years. Seasonal heating and acute spikes typically cause rolling outages across California’s power landscape. While grid managers can purchase electricity from neighboring states, this strategy is ineffective when high temperatures span entire regions.
Lately, even states that generally don’t have issues with extreme weather are feeling the strain on their power grid system. Recent highs of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland melted power cables and damaged other forms of wiring. This severely hampered power delivery, and the resulting outages affected over 6,000 residents.
Infrastructure degradation aside, periods of high temperatures sharply increase energy consumption. Millions of customers flick on their AC and congregate indoors, thus drawing power from multiple sources.
How can local grids keep pace with demand in light of additional requirements from EVs?
Additionally, a period of extreme Texas cold caused massive outages statewide earlier this year. Increased demand coupled with an energy drought from multiple sources robbed over 4.2 million residents of electricity. Overall, there’s concern that increased EV demand will contribute to these issues.
Another factor to consider as a plight to the power grid is cybersecurity. Recently, Colonial Pipeline Co, a major fuel supplier for half of the country, was subjected to a high-profile hack. The ransomware attack interrupted service entirely in just over an hour, with the outage spanning five days. The lessons learned since have brought security concerns to the forefront of our energy infrastructure.
It brings into question if this could happen to the power grid. Indeed, examples of cyberattacks are prominent: examples range from Ukraine’s major outages at the hands of Russian hackers to India's Mumbai grid failures.
Digitalization and software reliance has opened the door for these attacks, which in the past would’ve needed physical access. As far back as 2015, a survey showed that detected cyber incidents had increased six-fold globally across power companies and utilities.
The US’s gradual move towards the smart grid, while more modern and efficient, could place the system at risk of exploitation.
With more IoT-based technologies being integrated with the grid, and with EV charging stations added into the mix, it gives hackers a more significant attack footprint. Suppose the smart grid is envisioned as having more “locked doors” (yet more access endpoints) than in years prior: it’s only a matter of time before someone disturbs the ecosystem. This vulnerability is why EEs and cybersecurity experts now have overlapping spheres of influence in the energy sector.
Combating EV Uncertainty
As with the grid itself, there are many factors, known and unknown, impacting the feasibility of EV technology in the next 20 to 30 years.
Utilities and legislators must balance short-term and long-term goals when developing a grid readiness strategy. Unfortunately, this power grid management process remains fragmented at the state and federal levels. There is optimism to be had, however.
A November 2019 report by the Department of Energy showed no meaningful increase in national electricity damage during the previous ten years. Meanwhile, capacity has grown over 12 GW annually (or enough to power over six million homes).
With sound planning, this capacity boost could be enough to handle high demands from EVs. Suppose officials, companies, and engineers can devise creative plans to handle surges in demand. In that case, it remains to be seen if officials, companies, and engineers can devise innovative strategies to handle those surges in demand. As the plans start to come together, there will be more components and technologies heading down the pipeline.