Electric vehicle adoption is accelerating. The next generation of EVs will have larger battery capacity and will be capable of charging at much faster rates. Newly developed, high-powered charging infrastructure will deliver up to 350 kilowatts—seven times today’s most common charging capacity (50kW). As charging hubs multiply to support fast-growing adoption, innovative approaches to support the grid become critical.

The early adopter market is becoming the mainstream market. EV sales are up 102% for June 2017, and automakers continue to respond to demand with market commitments. Volvo Car Corp. announced that all of its models launched after 2019 will be either electric or hybrids, Volkswagen AG is targeting 25% EV sales by 2025 and Toyota Motor Corp. will not sell any fossil fuel vehicles after 2050. The energy implications of a booming EV market are staggering. In 2014, the U.S. population drove 251 million cars. If we electrify half of those cars, vehicles alone will demand 688 terawatt-hours of electricity, equal to 18% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2015.  

The pressing question is how the power supply will meet this rising demand and fulfill the promise of the EV revolution. This will require the industry to support three initiatives:

1. Predict change and then act on the prediction. Demand leads supply, so it is critical to anticipate the number of EV adopters, the location and timing of adoption and which urban settings and transportation corridors will require charging infrastructure to meet EV demand. With this insight, utilities can evaluate specific distribution lines and plan for upgrades. Regulators can prioritize approaches to help finance upfront capital costs where the grid infrastructure is deficient. Technology integrators keeping pace with emerging technologies and approaches can design energy solutions for areas where sufficient power does not exist.

Utilities are already making these predictions. The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District and Black & Veatch recently studied Distributed Energy Resources (DER) scenarios that included 240,000 EVs on the road by 2030. They found that without load management, up to 17% (12,000) of their service transformers, at an average estimated cost of $7,400 each, may require replacement due to overloads associated mainly with EV growth. This evaluation allows SMUD to plan for and respond to changing conditions.

2. Manage DER as a Portfolio. There is unprecedented growth in customer-owned and -controlled DER technologies. DER includes distributed generation, energy efficiency, demand response and energy storage, but it is expected that EV will be the most pervasive and widespread DER on the grid. Integrating EV and other DER with existing power, transmission and distribution resources creates greater grid flexibility if utilities and stakeholders can collaboratively develop an advanced EV charging ecosystem. Stakeholders must consider the opportunities of fully integrated mass EV charging, energy storage and distributed generation simultaneously.

To explore the impact of DER on the electric grid, Black & Veatch and the Solar Electric Power Association conducted interviews with five large U.S. utilities. In response to a growing number of DER interconnection requests, these utilities began to explore active management with demonstration-stage DER. One utility had mapped all customer-sited DER installations and was testing feeder auto-sectionalized protection plans to increase reliability under a variety of load/DER scenarios. With the big picture, utilities can safeguard reliable power in a future with diverse loads and variable demands.

3. Bust Siloes for Cross-Industry Collaboration. Each industry stakeholder can positively influence the pace of EV adoption, the deployment of charging infrastructure, energy management and the provision of grid power. With collaboration, decision-makers can establish stakeholder participation rules and incentives so that the EV charging network reflects site-specific approaches and the larger program goals. In particular, collaboration of regulators and legislators is critical: either they can facilitate EV adoption, private investment and new revenue for the utilities or they can create barriers that stunt EV market growth. With cross-industry participation, technology integrators can unify planning and deployment across stakeholders and systems; balance competing interests among stakeholders; and ultimately establish operation, policy and technology platforms that prepare the U.S. grid for mass adoption of EV.

Paul Stith is director of strategy and innovation at Black & Veatch. He builds solution sets and expands the business ecosystem with established and emerging technology partners. He has experience collaborating with utilities, supporting sustainable transportation, energy storage, and analyzing key policies. He co-wrote the whitepaper, Priming the United States Grid for High-Powered Electric Vehicle Charging, which he will present to an international audience at the EVS30 Symposium in October 2017.