Supercharging the Energy Grid

electric car energy grid

The world’s aging grids will be costly to repair and upgrade. However, it’s all worth it because electric cars may be the solution for stabilizing the grid.

Whether it’s coal-fired power plants, nuclear energy, or solar panels that we depend on to power our cities, all of these energy sources often have to be converted into electricity before they can be useful. Different parts of our energy infrastructure are thus interwoven from power generation, to transformation, to delivery, to consumption and perhaps even to storage or resale.

What happens then, when aging infrastructure doesn’t keep up with our changing patterns of energy use, or when unpredictability is heightened in one part of the energy supply chain? We explore how modern energy needs are putting a strain on existing infrastructure, and where to go from there.

Legacy infrastructure struggling to hold up

Across the world, there has been significant pressure to modernize energy infrastructure. This is not just in favor of shiny new “smart grid” technology, but also to replace or repair aging power grids that had largely been built in the 1970s and 80s. This strain can be observed in increasingly frequent power outages particularly in the US, which saw an average of less than five outages per year between the 1950s to 80s, but recorded 76 outages in 2007, and then 3,571 outages in the year 2015.

Complicated both by fragmentation and interdependence, electricity systems have become highly susceptible to disruption, even by faults outside one’s borders. For example, when two falling trees broke power lines in Switzerland in 2003, several Italian power plants failed, leaving almost the whole of Italy without power.

Competition for resources to repair and renew

Unfortunately, getting the electricity delivery network to where it needs to be costs a lot more in taxpayer monies than many countries are able to cope with. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, approximately $177 billion in additional investments is needed to address the country’s aging infrastructure in the next decade. Similarly, Europe’s fragile infrastructure will require roughly the same amount (€140 billion) for electricity transmission infrastructure alone. Therefore, great prudence must be exercised to determine which energy projects are commercially viable and worthwhile investments.

First and foremost, transmission and distribution lines need maintenance to withstand regular weathering. At the same time, however, without a decisive overhaul in favor of more modern grid infrastructure, aging grids will never have adequate flexibility to handle variable wind and solar power, as well as support dynamic electricity pricing systems.

Impact of electric cars on power distribution: challenges and opportunities

Power demand is unevenly distributed

A few things happened when we started introducing alternative sources of energy into the mix that powers our electric grid. With fossil fuels and nuclear energy, we were able to stabilize how much electricity is produced, by controlling the fuel source. However, we can’t do that with wind or solar energy, where an entire neighborhood’s production levels can be affected by a passing cloud or gust of wind. Consequently, spikes in electricity production oftentimes cannot find proportionate outlets for consumption, which means damage to wires if not properly absorbed.

A similar situation happens with the introduction of electric car charging, except from the consumption side. Right now, California is home to the most number of electric cars than any other state in America, with Portland having the highest per-capita concentration of charging stations among the country’s 25 largest cities. When plugging in an electric vehicle is sometimes “the equivalent of adding three houses to the grid,” the additional burden on neighborhood circuits can be quite significant.

Electric cars can help stabilize the grid

As mentioned before, the electric grid has a surge absorption problem because of the unpredictability of some renewable energy sources. At the same time, when demand far exceeds supply like when people get home from work and want to charge their cars, fossil fuel power plants need to be fired up to make up for that energy gap — which is ironic because renewable energy sources are meant to replace them.

However, electric vehicles can be programmed to charge at specific times, and if utilities companies are able to communicate with cars to stagger those timings to coincide with grid surges, absorbing excess electricity for a discount, electric cars may be the solution for stabilizing the grid.

While costly to roll out, smart grids allow countries to tap into low-cost, environmentally friendly energy resources in an efficient manner. Repairing legacy infrastructure may be necessary in the interim but building resilience into power distribution networks pays off in the long run.

Over in the Southeast Asian region, some countries haven’t been fully electrified. There is therefore tremendous potential for smart grid developments that leapfrog legacy grid infrastructure in the West, especially with the largest proportion of investments already going into smart metering.

Data-driven transformation of the energy industry

Upgrading energy infrastructure is a heavy investment and difficult to roll back because of the sheer scale involved. Therefore, any means to optimize the use of the infrastructure and ensure its reliability helps to avoid costly reinstallations in the future.

That said, electric cars and vehicle charging infrastructure naturally generate a lot of data that can help increase efficiencies in the energy industry. Already in communication with utilities companies, an electric car’s charging hours, needs and locations will provide useful insight for highly dynamic energy production and distribution management.

Not only will utility companies be able to offload excess electricity by charging idle cars, city planners will also be able to pinpoint locations along popular routes where cars often run low on electricity and build charging stations accordingly.

In the long term, modernization of aging energy grids will increase capacity for more efficient use of a wider, cleaner variety of power sources. Moving forward, if the energy industry and other private or public stakeholders are able to tap into the data generated by smart appliances and distributed charging systems, future upgrading and maintenance works can be guided by these detailed insights.