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Commentary: Is there enough electricity for electric vehicles?

In the world of transportation, no story has prevailed more in the past five years or so than the breathless wait for the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Just about every car manufacturer now has at least one model that is fully electric.  

In March 2019, it was announced that 58.4% of all cars sold in Norway were battery-powered EVs. The next month that total hit over 60% of all cars sold in the country. That average has held steady, which will mean that nearly 60% of all cars sold in Norway for the entire year are EVs. Politicians frequently like to point to the lightly populated Scandinavian nations and lament that the U.S. can’t be more like them. But the real question is, even if Americans are willing to purchase electric vehicles at the rate of the Norwegians, is the North American electric power grid ready for the mass adoption of EVs? 

In a 2018 study from CityLab, a transportation and infrastructure design website owned by the Atlantic Monthly Group, the team looked at energy production and consumption by state in order to convert vehicle miles traveled into electricity requirements based on the efficiency of today’s EVs. They found that if the trend of purchasing electric vehicles for personal use experienced a rapid increase in the United States, the collective North American electrical grid would have to change much faster than is reasonably expected. 

Texas and California are the primary states for the study since they are the states with the largest populations. The group found that in both states consumption of electricity would increase faster than the capacity of the grid to provide it. This would create enormous strains on the local infrastructure. For instance, hypothetically if all passenger cars were made electric today the Texas Interconnection (the Texas electric grid) would have to produce 110 more terawatt-hours of electricity per year, which is the amount of electricity consumption of 11 million homes. This amount of added demand would represent an increase of 30% over Texas’s current electricity production capacity. Worse still, the study found that California would have to produce nearly 50% more energy to make up for its current driver fuel usage. 

Though the data paint a potentially grim outlook for the imminent mass adoption of EVs, the study found that timing could be the key factor in whether the current electrical grid could keep electric transport in America on track. For instance, on a hot summer day Texas uses about half of its entire amount of electricity produced for air conditioning to cool homes and buildings. The excess capacity in the cooler months in Texas could be used to round out the production needed for EVs by storing the unused production.

Coastal California may not have the air conditioning requirements of Texas but given California’s history of lackluster energy transmission the state has its own set of challenges. As of the writing of this article there are over two million Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) customers (or in Norway what would be around 40 percent of the population) in northern and central California without power. The utility says that outage is due to having to be overly cautious to not start wildfires. This is a valid argument since the utility is claiming that its bankruptcy, which was approved by a judge last week, was spurred by $30 billion in legal judgements against it due to last year’s massive and devastating Camp Fire. What would happen if the states transport capabilities were also inhibited during the current dilemma?

American motorists drive around three trillion miles per year combined, which consumes over 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. Given the need for Americans to be able to cover large distances and the love that American drivers have for driving, the utilities have their work cut out for them. How did Norway do it?