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Can EVs Save Struggling Power Grids on a Warming Planet?

As extreme heat events continue to test the power grid in parts of the U.S., the large batteries in electric vehicles are being seen as an opportunity to help smooth out consumer demand peaks. 

EV charging station
Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic
The power demands of electric cars can be a source of worry, but also salvation for managers of the electric grid.

Yes, EVs consume larger amounts of electric power, and as more of them hit the highways, those electric demands only increase. However, smart grid management will almost surely mean turning to EVs to help smooth demands on the power grid during peak periods like heat waves, say researchers.

“Not only does the flexibility [of EV charging] offset the increased load ... and the capabilities are there; we can also implement solutions that help take load off the grid,” said Cavan Merski, data analyst for Pecan Street, a smart cities and green energy research firm in Austin, Texas.

In fact, the demands on the grid in the future may not come only from electric cars, but a warming planet which is bringing longer and hotter heat waves, prompting more air conditioning use, particularly in the U.S. South, in states like Texas.

“When we talk about planning for the future, if climate change accelerates, if we start hitting these more severe summer peaks, we’re going to have to account for this,” said Scott Hinson, chief technology officer for Pecan Street, in some of his comments during a virtual presentation Tuesday. “And these systems were not necessarily designed for thermal transfers, and thermal exchanges where the high temperature is 109, 108, that regularly. The design guides for our area have been 97, 99 for years, not those temperatures."

To be clear, EV owners should not have to worry about the power utility draining their car battery just so the next-door neighbor can maintain a chilly home during a heat wave. That’s not the scenario the Pecan Street team imagines. Instead, the vehicle-to-grid arrangements will likely evolve as small bursts of power siphoned from car batteries.

“When we’re talking about using an EV as grid support, either for your home, or for the grid, we’re not talking about depleting your battery completely,” said Hinson.

“When it comes to these grid events, we’re not talking about 12-hour periods, where your car is serving energy back to the grid," he added. “They’re short, emergency spikes. So, an hour here, maybe two hours here."

“As a consumer these sound like very manageable episodes,” he continued, calling this type of grid management a “no-brainer,” particularly when considering the money EV owners can earn from making their cars available as an energy source to be tapped by the electric utility.

In a state like Texas, where there are still only about 80,000 electric cars on the roads, turning to EVs for grid management may still be some time away. But utility providers, technology- and policy-makers should be preparing today because both EV adoption and extreme heat events are on the rise.

“As soon as you buy an EV, it’s going to be the biggest load in your home. But it’s also going to become one of the most flexible loads you’ve ever seen in your home,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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