Shock to the system: utilities brace for electric vehicle influx

09 January 2019 7 min. read

They’re coming. There’s no stopping them. They’re driving toward us. And they feed off our electricity. They are electric vehicles (EVs), and they are on the brink of wide-scale adoption. This is a certainty.

The International Energy Agency’s latest "Global EV Outlook" shows that there were more than 3 million EVs on the road in 2017, a number that will increase exponentially, to 50 million, by 2020, then again, to 125 million – potentially 220 million, “should policy ambitions rise even further to meet climate goals and other sustainability targets” – by 2030.

The pressure’s on, then, for utility companies, which must take action in the very near future if they are to successfully handle the coming surge in electrical demand, according to a new study. The report, by management consultancy firm L.E.K. Consulting and Australia-based e-mobility experts Tritium, titled "Preparing the Grid for the Uptake of Electric Vehicles," offers both challenges and solutions for utility companies regarding the EV situation.

“There are significant opportunities for network owners, operators, and energy retailers as EVs are one of the few growth drivers for many developed energy markets, and also enable the opportunity for utilities to build closer consumer relationships,” said Tim McGrath, a partner at L.E.K. Consulting. “But utilities need to be proactive in planning for a future scenario of significant EV adoption, especially in a world where spending capex on additional infrastructure at the costs of the consumer is no longer a palatable response.”

The number of EVs will increase to 50 million by 2020

The challenges

EV-eryone wants some

More EVs on the road means more electricity will be used. It’s simple supply and demand. If EV battery energy efficiency remains roughly the same, EVs will demand 6.3% of global electricity in 2030, compared with a modest 0.3% in 2017.

Same time, same place, same demand

Owning an EV nearly doubles a household’s energy consumption. Amplifying this strain on the grid is the current trend which shows EV owners living in close proximity to one another (the same cities, neighborhoods, or streets).

“Clustering effects in vehicle adoption at the local level might lead to high PEV [plug-in electric vehicle] concentrations even if overall adoption remains low, significantly increasing peak demand and requiring upgrades to the electricity distribution infrastructure,” states a 2018 article in scientific journal Nature. Essentially, certain areas are bound to have higher concentrations of EVs than others. These areas will place strain on the electrical grid, as EV owners will charge their vehicles in roughly the same locations, often at the same general times.

An electrical guessing game

As the number of EVs increase, so will the number of charging stations. This creates unpredictability in terms of when and where vehicles will be charged. “Charging an element of randomness, and drivers will recharge their vehicles at different locations and for varying lengths of time whenever required,” states the L.E.K. report.

With the rise of EV electrical requirements, power demand becomes “nonlinear,” and requires increased distribution of power generating devices such as solar panels. “This can stress local infrastructure and heighten the need for increased network investment,” McGrath said. Without proper management, this stress will come at great financial cost to utility companies, decreasing lifetimes and requiring more frequent replacement of equipment such as transformers and cables.

"With the rise of EV electrical requirements, power demand becomes nonlinear and requires increased generation and distribution of power."

The solutions

According to the research, there are five steps utility companies should take, “both to stabilize future grid behavior and ensure the rise of electric vehicles maintains its pace.” For utility companies to not act proactively is to potentially position themselves as barriers to widespread EV adoption.

Make charging worth it

Utilities must provide incentives to customers that will allow residential charging to be more adeptly managed. Tariffs and demand response programs will encourage EV owners to do their part in reducing strain on the infrastructure.“New York utility Con Edison enables EV drivers to charge anywhere in the Con Edison service territory, be identified, and earn rewards for charging outside of peak hours,” the report states as an example.

Get smart

Using the right software is key in ensuring that home charging is managed in such a way as to not place undue stress during peak hours. Much like those used in certain air-condoning systems, smart software can stagger home charging to avoid a dogpile. Utility companies can also consider offering subsidies to those consumers willing to give up a certain amount of control as to when they charge their vehicle at home.

Create a transparent grid

Businesses, entrepreneurs, and those looking to invest in charging stations and infrastructure must be kept in the loop with clear and detailed information. This will keep the infrastructure moving, preventing backup, and ensuring that power is available whenever and wherever it is needed. “For example,” the report states, “PG&E, a Californian utility, has created an interactive mapping tool for network capacity highlighting the locations on their network where existing equipment has the capacity and is ready to be used for EV charging.”

Take charge

Utilities must look for options other than the deployment and installation of charging stations. This includes opportunities such as “stationary battery storage at charging locations.” Doing so will further reduce pressure on the grid, and allow for the exploration of areas that would otherwise be unreachable.

Come together

Automakers, utility companies, charger manufacturers – all involved must work cohesively to construct a habitable environment for the future of EVs, and the electricity demanded by them. “The U.S. Department of Energy is facilitating such collaboration, recently announcing over $8 million in funding designed [for cross-industry collaboration],” the report states. This funding hopes to see utilities rise to the “forefront of emerging vehicle charging and grid integration technologies.”