Can America’s Power Grid Support Millions of Electric Cars?

By Terry Jarrett

There’s little doubt that a global technology revolution is under way. And the sweep of change over the past decade alone has been stunning. Electric cars and smart phones are proving that the world has gone high-tech. Many analysts now believe that a “deep electrification” of the U.S. economy is coming, too, thanks to electric cars, electric buses, and high-speed rail. This electrification could also transform both homes and heavy industry through advances in heat pumps and on-demand water heaters. But all of it will mean a large increase in electricity needs, and it’s important to start planning now to ensure future power grid reliability.

In 2016, there were 567,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. But thanks to an EV boom, that number may reach a whopping 7 million cars by 2025. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), electric vehicles could account for up to 76 percent of vehicle-miles traveled by 2050, which would drive a 38 percent increase in U.S. electricity needs.

It’s not just electric cars, though. There’s also the massive power demands needed for the data centers that create, transport, and store virtual information. All of this suggests a huge shift in how Americans will consume electricity. And while electricity consumption has been fairly stable in recent years, a move toward deep electrification could send demand climbing.

Is the U.S. power grid prepared for such an increase? Unfortunately not. That’s because, even as a surge in demand looms ahead, the nation has been losing key sources of baseload power that currently anchor much of the overall electric grid. And part of the problem stems from heavy subsidization of wind and solar projects that currently deliver only 7.6 percent of U.S. electricity.

Since 2010, more than 600 coal plants in 43 states have been retired or scheduled for retirement. The nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear plants is in trouble, too. Nearly half of all U.S. reactors are facing financial pressure, and operating plants have already been decommissioned.

A shift toward natural gas-fired electricity has also hit stumbling blocks. While utilities have added new natural gas plants, construction of new gas pipelines has become increasingly difficult. Simply put, the ability to deliver more natural gas isn’t keeping up with rising demand.

America’s coal and nuclear power plants have long provided reliable, essential electricity. But unless action is taken to preserve their non-stop baseload electricity, the U.S. could lose generating capacity at precisely the time when demand is increasing. And once these plants close, there’s no bringing them back.

Electric cars are undoubtedly coming, and a new electric age is on the horizon. Meeting this increased electricity demand will be no simple feat, though. America’s power grid will be pushed to the max. What’s needed is a balanced, diverse electricity mix that incorporates coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar in the most efficient means possible. To prepare for tomorrow’s challenges, it’s critical to start planning today.

Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.

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