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Facing the Electric Revolution: The Challenges and Solutions for America's Aging Power Grid

By 2030, it's projected that over 50% of all new cars sold in the U.S. will be electric vehicles (EVs), which could heavily tax our nation's aging electric grid, designed for a world powered by fossil fuels.

Domestic electricity demand, expected to have risen by up to 18% in 2022, is forecasted to further increase by up to 38% by 2035, as per the Rapid Energy Policy Evaluation and Analysis Toolkit (REPEAT) study at Princeton University. This is a considerable shift from the 5% increase seen in the previous decade.

"We're facing a significant surge in power demand in the coming years, a trend we haven't seen in almost 25 years," stated Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies, a policy group specializing in transmission.

A major share of this demand stems from the transport sector, with light-duty vehicles excluding large trucks and aviation anticipated to consume up to 3,360% more electricity by 2035, as per Princeton's findings. But to effectively reduce carbon emissions, this transition towards electrification needs to be matched with substantial advancements in renewable energy infrastructure.

This entails substantial modifications to the grid, including additional high-voltage transmission lines, improved distribution lines and transformers, and more inverters to allow customers with home batteries, EVs, and solar panels to feed excess energy back into the grid.

Kevala, a grid analytics company, in a study commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission, estimates that California alone will need to invest $50 billion by 2035 to upgrade its distribution grid to meet its ambitious EV goals.

Charging EVs is highly energy-intensive. For instance, the electricity used by a Tesla Model 3 owner driving an average of 14,000 miles per year for home charging would be equivalent to powering an electric water heater for a year, and about ten times more than that used by an energy-efficient refrigerator. Larger EVs like the Ford F-150 Lightning would typically consume more electricity than a large home's central AC unit.

PG&E, serving Northern and Central California, currently has about 470,000 EVs connected to its grid, with a target of 3 million by 2030. As the provider for about one-seventh of the U.S.'s EVs, PG&E's approach to the EV transition could serve as a national model.

However, PG&E faces challenges due to its four-year funding cycle for grid infrastructure upgrades, and its last request in 2021 falls short of meeting upcoming demands, according to Lydia Krefta, director of clean energy transportation at PG&E.

Aram Shumavon, CEO of Kevala, said that inadequate grid infrastructure could lead to charging difficulties, susceptibility to extreme weather events, and blackouts. The solution involves bringing more, preferably green, energy sources online, which requires additional high-voltage transmission lines to transport resources from rural areas where wind and solar energy are most abundant.

However, regulatory and financing issues, along with a lengthy permitting process, pose significant challenges to building new transmission lines. The Inflation Reduction Act could potentially reduce emissions by about 1 billion tons by 2030, as per REPEAT's analysis, but the buildout of transmission infrastructure needs to exceed its historical growth rate of 1% per year, or risk losing more than 80% of these reductions.

As a part of the solution, resources such as residential solar and battery systems could help stabilize the grid, with automakers equipping their EVs with bidirectional charging capabilities, enabling customers to use their EV batteries to power their homes or feed electricity back to the grid.

Finally, there will likely be a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and optimized charging times. PG&E, for example, is considering how to maximize charging times for large electric vehicle fleets.

"We're exploring partnerships with companies that have substantial charging demands to implement flexible load constraints. For instance, they might be limited to charging 50 EVs at 7 p.m., but they could charge their entire fleet of 100 at 2 a.m.," explained Krefta.

Krefta is hopeful that such charging restrictions will only be temporary. Looking ahead, PG&E aims to motivate consumers through dynamic pricing—higher electricity prices during peak demand periods and lower prices during off-peak hours. The utility is also in conversation with automakers to understand how electric vehicles can best benefit the grid.

Krefta posed the questions, "What alterations do you need in your garage to enable your vehicle to power your home? How can you make the most of your vehicle to charge when the grid is powered by clean, low-cost renewables and then discharge back to the grid during peak hours?" Finding answers to these queries, she believes, will contribute significantly to the creation of the future green grid.


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