The Electricity Grid Meets the Highway

New technologies in the electricity sector are bringing more choice, more control and more convenience for customers.

Electric vehicles (EV) are a prime example – though as I write this in July 2020, sticker prices of vehicles are somewhat higher than their fossil-fueled counterparts. However, by 2025, the purchase price of an EV is expected to be on-par with – or less expensive than – a comparable gas-fueled vehicle. Additionally, they are almost universally cheaper to run; electric motors have far fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine and as a result, require far less maintenance. No engine means no oil changes, no air filters and no spark plugs. There are no mufflers to rust out, no transmissions to worry about, no timing belt to replace. Some EV owners have quipped that in the first year, windshield wipers are the only thing an owner needs to service. Most of all, electricity is far less expensive than gasoline – meaning that with EVs, drivers would get more kilometres for fewer dollars. We should also consider that they are quieter, accelerate quicker, heat up faster in the wintertime, and do not emit pollution into the atmosphere; they are starting to look like a pretty good bargain.

This is the real world. Nothing is ever perfect. There are definite drawbacks to EVs. However, with a bit of forethought, those drawbacks are easily manageable. In fact, EV owners and regulators have the benefit of looking back to transportation’s past for a comparable situation.

In the mid-20th century, the massive U.S. Interstate system and the Canadian TransCanada Highway system were being built to link cities by Expressway across North America. Aimed at freeing drivers from traffic congestion and speeding commutes, the craze extended within cities as well, which led to building commuter highways like the Long Island Expressway in New York and the Allen Expressway in Toronto. For a while, the expressways were as advertised – a faster option for travelers, and traffic was eased for a time on other roads. But the typical result of a new expressway was that car ownership (for those who could afford it) was now more attractive, and so travellers and commuters traded in their bus and rail tickets for car keys. Within months, the commuter expressways that were designed to reduce congestion for decades to come were as slow as the city streets they were supposed to replace. Decision makers at the time misunderstood that expressways don’t relieve traffic – they increase it. As a result, the transportation system as a whole, and commuters especially, suffered. Sometimes too late, city planners realized that it was necessary to at least include options for bus lanes or rapid transit if congestion was to be relieved for any length of time.

So what does this have to do with EVs? Well, EVs need electricity, and the way most people get electricity is from their utility, through the grid. If EVs have the uptake that you would expect when a better, cheaper option is available in a few years, this could lead to a significant increase in electricity consumption – traffic, if you will – on the grid. This is the drawback referred to above – in a world where not dozens, but hundreds or thousands of drivers are charging their EVs at the same time in the same area, that can cause significant disruptions to the power grid.

And now, the forethought. EVs are coming, they are necessary to reach our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, and it is fair to assume people are going to like paying less to get more. To manage the impact on the grid, electricity utilities need to be able to plan the necessary improvements far into the future.

Right now it is uncertain if some key pieces of EV-related regulations, such as the federal Clean Fuel Standard currently being developed, will allow utilities to plan for a tidal wave of EVs in the next few years. Detailed data on where, when and how much EV charging is taking place can take the guesswork out of investing in EV infrastructure and ensuring that the power is still there whenever they need it. That is why CEA is working with policymakers to help ensure that EVs live up to their promise, delivering convenience, comfort and carbon emission reductions.

Written by Jay Wilson
Jay Wilson is CEA’s Director of Generation and Stewardship. He leads the environmental and generation-related files and is also an EV driver and advocate.