A Glut Of EVs Could Make America's Shoddy Power Grid Even Worse

The increasingly rickety American power grid seems to short out for all sorts of reasons.
It took just one worker in Yuma, Arizona to plunge millions of people into the dark in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, a few weeks back. A fluke, perhaps, but not a rarity.

If anything, major power outages are becoming an increasingly serious problem and at precisely the worst time possible – at least if you're an advocate of electric propulsion. Utility officials concede that it will be increasingly difficult to win over potential battery-car customers if they can't be certain of a steady supply of electric power.

Yet, that's precisely what American consumers are facing. In the Detroit suburbs, two months back, a heat wave popped the circuits at a number of sub-stations around the city. It plunged much of my own little community of Pleasant Ridge into the dark for as much as three days. We were lucky. The hurricane and tropical storms that struck the East Coast, from the Carolinas to Maine, just days later, cut power to millions more utility customers, some for weeks.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

The number of major power outages has doubled during the last decade.
Okay, we can grudgingly accept that natural disasters can only be suffered through. But the increasingly rickety American power grid seems to short out for all sorts of reasons. In Texas, a sudden lull at a wind farm isn't properly managed and much of the state temporarily blacks out. In Detroit, an aging transformer shorts out. And then, in Yuma, we have a solitary workman, struggling to replace a worn capacitor, triggering a series of rolling blackouts in Arizona, Southern California, and Northern Mexico, San Diego's power going down entirely for awhile.

"It's not getting better," John Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the public interest research group ProPublica, in a July interview. "It's getting worse."

Indeed, research by the University of Minnesota finds that the number of major power outages has doubled during the last decade – and as FERC's chairman suggested, there's little reason to believe that will get better any time soon.

Yet the grid is being asked to take on a new load, the Obama Administration aiming to drive more than a million plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles onto U.S. roads by mid-decade. At anywhere from three kilowatts to as much as 75, the chargers used for vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt or the upcoming Tesla Model S will dwarf the power consumption of even the most energy-hungry home of today. That battery car is very likely to suck down more power than all your plasma TVs, 1000-watt audio systems, desktop computers and air conditioning systems combined.

Imagine hearing warning sirens and finding your car is stuck in the driveway, the battery on "E."
Officials from both the utility and automotive industries insist that consumers are likely to charge up their vehicles overnight, when demand on the grid is lightest – and rates are lowest – for those using special time-dependent circuits. Initial evidence doesn't necessarily support that. If anything, it appears battery car owners are more likely than not to plug in whenever they have a chance.

"I don't want to wait til morning to have my car charged up," says a close friend – himself in the auto industry, hence his request not to be named – "I want my car ready to go at any moment."

Imagine hearing the warning sirens for a tornado or hurricane and finding your car is stuck in the driveway, the battery on "E."

But even if lower rates do encourage a large proportion – even a majority – of battery car owners to time their charging cycles for off-peak that doesn't do much if your neighborhood is blacked out.

"It's a definite problem," said a spokesman for DTE Energy, the utility for my Detroit suburb, after our mid-summer blackout. "We've been targeting that neighborhood as likely to have a lot of early adapters," but at least one of just my immediate neighbors has decided not to buy a Chevy Volt after seeing his power go off – again.

Many times we don't even realize how often the grid goes down. After installing a natural gas generator at my home in July 2009 I counted at least 13 blackouts – some lasting just minutes – during the next six months.

The White House is trying to ensure there's a ready, steady supply of electricity to feed all those hungry battery cars. It has allocated $11 billion in stimulus funding – much of it to create a so-called smart grid. New technology should make it easier for utilities to monitor supply and demand and respond to potential problems. New meters going into suburban Detroit in the coming months will automatically report blackouts and, one would hope, speed up repairs.

Such technology, experts suggest, could have helped prevent the blackout triggered by that worker in Arizona.

Proponents believe sales will grow exponentially, and so will the risk that such products will strain the grid.
But the process of updating a grid that, in some communities, pre-dates the Great Depression's New Deal won't come quickly. Barely 15% of the Administration's stimulus funds have so far been spent.

Meanwhile, some skeptics fret that new federal rules aimed at reducing power plant emissions could only complicate the current situation – a charge the EPA strongly denies.

The U.S. is by no means alone. Countries from Korea to Germany are discovering the cracks in their own grids. And then there's Japan. The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11 crippled one of the country's biggest nuclear plants and with the Fukushima Daichi plant down the nation has been struggling ever since with a severe energy shortage. That has led hotels to shut off air conditioning, dimmed the lights on the Ginza and even forced shifts in production schedules at automotive assembly plants.

If there's any good news it's that the ramp up of sales for battery cars – whether plug-ins or pure battery-electric vehicles – will likely start slowly. Sales of Volt, Leaf and all other models combined at running only a few thousand a month. But proponents believe that will grow exponentially – and so will the risk that such products will strain the grid – and that frustrated buyers will turn against the technology when the power once again goes out.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      emperor koku
      • 3 Years Ago
      Um, makes no sense to me that an occasional blackout compelled your neighbor to skip on the Volt. Seems that would actually reinforce his choice, since blackouts would be the prime time to show the Volt's benefit over the LEAF.
      fly by wireless
      • 3 Years Ago
      Bullshit. A Nissan Leaf sucks the juice of 4 plasma TV's over a full year. Plasma TV's didn't bring down the grid. Neither would EV's sold in similar numbers.
        2 Wheeled Menace
        • 3 Years Ago
        @fly by wireless
        +1 electric cars are most often charged at night as well, when the grid load is much lower.
      • 3 Years Ago
      @Paul Eisenstein: For over a decade now there have been "Sky is Falling" media scare stories on how the power grid won't be able to handle electric cars. They prey on fear and hysteria due to heatwave, accident, and disaster related blackouts for coverage. So far, nothing has happened, and I don't believe it ever will. For starters, as you noted, sales of electric vehicles will begin gradually. Do you really think all the gas pumps we use were there waiting as the first cars spooked horses off the streets or the first Model Ts began rolling off the assembly line? If people start shifting their expenses from fossil fuels to electricity, you can bet the electric companies will be there to follow the money. We already have the cabling in place to not just allow fueling at hubs such as gas stations, but directly into people's homes! We have dedicated power stations, wind farms, solar energy, hydroelectric power, it's all a matter of upgrading what's already there. On top of that, even if gas shot up to $20 per gallon tomorrow and everyone wanted an electric car, that simply wouldn't be possible. There are supply constraints from the battery companies who not only have a limit to their production capacities, but a finite limit on the commercially available minerals that make up today's batteries. Sales increases of electric cars will have to be gradual whether we like it or not. You also noted that cars are most likely to charge during off-peak hours. This only becomes more true as the technology disseminates. With the proliferation of smart-appliances, electric plants have more and more control over prioritizing power output when it is needed most. Some of the most advanced computing technology money can buy is in today's electric cars. These are by no means a fancy washer dryer you plug in in your garage. Cars have all kinds of adaptive programming and fuzzy logic that can adapt to the usage cycles of many different kinds of users. This might be the most electric company friendly/compatible appliance in our homes. Add to that the market for gas stations of tomorrow, and you have a recipe for easily accessible quick-chargers all around the country. What does this have to do with charging during off peak hours? The kind of anxiety which today leads people to plug in and charge whenever they can will subside with readily available lifelines on almost every corner. Rather than always charging "just in case," people will be able to power up with a higher priority on charging smartly...
        • 3 Years Ago
        Lastly, and as supported in the comments so far, electric cars are not like powering the lighting array at Yankee Stadium. With the central air conditioners many people are running now days, the power being used by the cars pales in comparison. In fact, seeing as cars are only on the road for a fraction of their life, they could even be used as battery backup for the existing grid. Say you are on vacation, or you take public transit to work during the week, or you have a small commute, you could elect to allow your car to charge in off-peak hours when there is excess capacity and pump electricity back into the grid when it is more expensive and in high demand both making a profit and supplementing the existing infrastructure. Electric cars are coming, that is a given, but change in this case does not mean we should all panic.
          Dave R
          • 3 Years Ago
          The LEAF and Volt draw about the same amount of power as your central A/C heat-pump, or electric dryer (240V 16A). The Tesla Roadster can draw a lot more power (240V 70A) but most owners only charge at 32A unless they need to recharge extra quickly. One can estimate charging time at 240V/16A at about 14 miles / hour. So if your daily commute is 30 miles you'll have to charge a bit more than 2 hours a day to keep your battery pack topped off.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Now that I own an electric car, I read articles like this in utter disbelief wondering what the true motivation is behind spreading such utter nonsense. Is this political anti Obama propaganda, crony capitalist auto industry protectionism or just plain crap journalism? At the crux of the article is the claim "At anywhere from three kilowatts to as much as 75, the chargers used for vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt or the upcoming Tesla Model S will dwarf the power consumption of even the most energy-hungry home of today. " I would really like to know the source of such absurdity, I'm betting it can be sourced to the gas/oil industry. The average commuter in the US drives 40 miles or less a day, in electric car terms, 40 miles is really not a lot of electricity. Regardless of the size of the batteries, it's the average number of miles driven that counts. I have been averaging about 1,500 miles a month on our Leaf for about $33 in electricity. This is a bit more than our clothes dryer and not quite as much as our hot water heater and by no means does it dwarf the energy consumption of the house... it adds about 30% to our electricity bill and reduces the use of our gas car by 80% and thus our gas bill at the pump by thousands a year. We are seeing about 2.2 cents a mile, the economic equivalent of roughly 200 MPG's. Sure some people will plug in during the day as they go, but the vast majority are charging at night where off peak over capacity is currently going to waste. Millions of electric vehicles can be added to the grid without adding a single new generator and amazingly, without burning any more fuel, by simply storing up the excess electricity that we can already generate with the fuel we are burning to keep the big baseload boilers going. Shame on you Paul Eisenstein for your thinly veiled attempt at spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Disinformation (FUD).
      • 3 Years Ago
      The real problem here is that he is trying to plug electricity (??) into a gasoline Subaru Impreza.
      Kuyper Hoffman
      • 3 Years Ago
      When the power goes out, gas pumps stop working too. But your tank doesn't suddenly drain of all it's gas; likewise, when the power goes out, my LEAF's batteries still hold their charge. And 3-4kW draw is *nothing* compared to my electric range; I (co-incidentally) did that test just today. I happened to be charging during the day (usually at night) so to see what would happen if my aircon, LEAF's Blink Level II charger and 2 ranges were all running at the same time I fired all up for a minute and checked my panel draw. 17kW - of which the LEAF was contributing 3-4, so hardly "dwarfing" my power budget....
      Pete K
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is just "sky is falling" BS fear mongering... I'm more concerned about the long term economic implications of the fact that petroleum will NEVER be cheap again. That is much more frightening realization than this drivel. I can't wait for DTE to tell this guy off because I'm quite certain they have a vested interest in electric vehicles doing well. http://www.dteenergy.com/residentialCustomers/productsPrograms/electricVehicles/eVCalculator.html http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110511/FREE/110519966/dte-installs-3-million-solar-array-at-chevy-volt-factory#
        Pete K
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Pete K
        Interesting... http://green.autoblog.com/2011/09/27/nrg-energy-launches-nations-1st-commercial-scale-v2g-project/
      • 3 Years Ago
      After all the new electronics devices most homes have added in the last 20 or so years, the growing number of EVs is just another reason to modernize the grid.
      • 3 Years Ago
      That's the question that the Volt answers.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Hey you know what would help stabilize the grid and make it more reliable? Some form of energy storage buffer, some means of storing energy when you have excess that you can then access when you need. Something along the lines of... EVs charging at night with the ability to upload to the grid when not in use. Or maybe substation facilities with a bank of used car batteries that can still each hold a solid 10kWh of energy. Or you know what, how about when it comes time to replace your EV after 10 years, you can hold onto the battery yourself if you want, put it down in the basement and put in 1000$ worth of control circuitry so that you can have 10 days of reserve power at the ready whenever you need it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I kinda understand your idea... What if we were able to add capacitor units to home electrical systems? At night, this capacitor would pull unused, cheap, off-peak electricity from the power grid. During the day, power would be pulled from the capacitor initially (until that source ran out), then switch to grid power as necessary. Kinda like the extended range hybrid vehicles.
      • 3 Years Ago
      1. It is unlikely that a family will only have an electric vehicle. 2. Having no power is no different than having no gas ('70s oil crises). Having both diversifies, thus protecting from the loss of either.
      • 3 Years Ago
      "What good is an electric vehicle if there's no electricity?" Charge them with Gas Powered Generators..... oh the irony ;-)
        • 3 Years Ago
        Why irony? Some office buildings as well as private owners have diesel backup generators for years. It does not power EVs but what's the difference? Overall, the generators are used more on test runs, to make sure they are ok, then for real black-outs.
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