-See also Charging, Part STFU
I just mentioned charging my electric vehicle, a Zero S motorcycle. It’s a snap. Now’s a good time to debunk a second myth: “EVs will wreck the power grid.”
NO, THEY WON’T. By engineering and by coincidence, our electrical network will do just fine for many years to come, plugins or not.
I just mentioned how little power my vehicle draws, which ties back to how efficient electric drive is compared to piston engines and mechanical transmissions. An electric system is several times more efficient at putting energy to the wheels. Not several percent more, several times. Thus, charging represents much less total juice than hydrocarbon pumping. This is the demand-side reduction.
On the delivery side, electricity wins again. Pretty much everyone charges their plug-in vehicles at night; daytime charging is mostly top-ups and opportunity stops. A fraction of people can recharge at work. Even here, most EV commuters plug in when they arrive in the morning, and top up from their one-way commute after a few hours.
Why is time of day important? It might not seem important to you, the consumer. But to the producer, it’s the most important thing all day long, and in some bad weeks.
In the power industry, the limiting factor is peak demand. At night, people are asleep, and demand is low. Street lights use pretty efficient bulbs. During the day, there are still bulbs on inside. And computers and appliances and tools, in shops, schools, factories, and offices. The one biggest appliance/tool of all, however, is the air conditioner. Offices and shops and factories demand workable temperatures, and most homes and schools too. Not only is the afternoon the hottest part of the day, but it’s when shops, workplaces, and schools are still open; most homes are automatically running their AC even if everyone’s at work or school.
Thus, the power grids are designed for the time of most strain- summer afternoons. You may have noticed most blackouts happen summer evenings. Grids have been straining all afternoon, and something around sunset (before it cools off much) becomes the last straw. The New York/Northeast mega-blackout (2003) was an August evening, caused by one transmission line finally failing under the afternoon’s load. That one line caused a cascading failure, since the other lines were also fully loaded.
Conversely, night and morning are when the grid loafs along. Spot prices for electricity on the power markets fall. If your utility offers variable (“time of use”) rates, the night rate (“off-peak”) can be half or less. Some utility companies even offer a “super off peak” rate, after midnight or one o’clock.
Spot prices may actually go negative some nights. In some areas, geography causes winds to blow strongly at night. Wind turbines are thus churning out plenty of clean energy. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants can’t really start up and shut down (“load following”). Nuclear plants are large, to maximize economies of scale. It then takes many hours for such a facility to heat up and cool down, running inefficiently all the while. Operators, then, leave the nuclear plants running with only minimal adjustment, and instead shut down hydroelectric dams, natural-gas turbines, perhaps some of the smaller or less-efficient coal sites. When that’s still not enough, there’s too much power in the grid. Spot prices fall to zero, then negative.
Electric vehicles, then, don’t affect peak demand. It’s just like your cell-phone company offering evening and weekend minutes- they don’t really care by then, let alone after midnight or one. Cars with large battery packs now have timers, which you can program to delay charging. You can start when your time-of-use plan lowers its rates, even if you’re asleep. It’s just like your dish or clothes washer offering a timer. Or, you can use your smartphone/laptop/tablet in bed, to control a smart charger.
The issue of EV charging and power demand is, then, a non-issue. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an expert body funded by the utilities themselves, stated as much, years ago. The nation could add tens of millions of plug-in vehicles before the grid strains. Even San Diego Gas & Electric states that “Today, California’s electricity capacity could recharge as many as 4 million plug-in hybrids” without issue. Needless to say, the nation nor California is not at millions of plug-in vehicles this year, or next.
We could also add more solar power…