How the coming wave of electric-car adoption could strain power grids

Texas plunged into a record-setting deep freeze when a massive winter storm crossed the central plains of the United States in February. Millions were left without power for days after the bitter cold weather led residents to overwhelm the grid by cranking up their heating. As the situation turned deadly, it didn’t take long for people to start pointing fingers.

Some blamed the Loan Star State’s small percentage of renewable power, falsely claiming that frozen wind turbines were a major cause. But natural gas, coal and nuclear power also buckled under an unexpected strain that rivalled the days of summer, when air conditioners ran on high to beat the Texan heat.

The takeaways from this crisis are still being debated more than a month later. However, there is at least one obvious fact that the huge blackout highlighted – grids have become more complex in recent years, and will continue to be so, as more regions add wind, solar and other renewable forms of power in a bid to cut carbon output. On the demand side, if the electric vehicle (EV) push from automakers and governments works, it will mean more and more juice flowing into car batteries.

What will it mean for Canada’s infrastructure when plugging in replaces filling up? The country has plenty of generation capacity today, but is the grid “smart” enough to manage the daily charging habits of a large number of EV owners? The electrical load of a fully electric vehicle is much larger than the home appliances, heating and air conditioning grids were designed to support.

Blake Shaffer, an economist and energy expert at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, used his own Tesla and solar-equipped home to study the issue on a small scale. He recently plotted a year’s worth of car charging against solar power generation from panels on his roof.

“My wife is the main driver. When she gets home from work in the evening, she plugs the car in. That coincides with when solar [power generation] is starting to trail off at my house. It’s also coinciding with peak periods of demand on the grid,” Shaffer told Yahoo Finance Canada. “It’s kind of the worst time for the system writ large.”

That’s a pretty normal charging schedule, according to Enmax Energy, Calgary’s city-owned utility, as well as a study from the California Energy Commission. Shaffer said it’s not a big problem yet because most drivers don’t own an electric car. That could change as the federal government wants every new vehicle sold to be able to drive without producing CO2 emissions by 2040. According to a recent survey by KPMG, 68 per cent of Canadians are likely to purchase an electric model, including hybrids, as their next vehicle. Several automakers have set targets to roll out entirely electric lineups in the coming decades.

Unlike the snap of frigid weather that overwhelmed the Texas grid earlier this year, utility operators have a realistic shot at predicting future power demand from EVs. Enmax, Toronto Hydro and BC Hydro told Yahoo Finance Canada that they are prepared to meet the needs of increased EV ownership.

Perhaps the more critical question is how electricity rates and technology should be used to prevent everyone plugging in at once.

“If you’re an EV owner, and we know it’s going to cost a lot of money if everyone charges between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., then there needs to be a rate design that makes people who charge that hour pay more,” says Brady Yauch, markets and regulatory manager at the electricity price forecasting firm Power Advisory.

Yauch adds that more EVs in driveways and solar panels on homes mean less of the grid is under the operator’s direct control.

“In some cases they’re struggling to deal with it,” he says. “They’re built to oversee the grid at large, not a bunch of solar panels on houses adding supply, and electric cars in driveways.”

For Shaffer in Calgary, there is no financial incentive to change the time of day he charges his car, since he pays a flat rate for electricity. If there was a time-of-use pricing in his area, he says EV owners would likely set their cars to charge at the cheapest time. That would shift charging to when homes are using less power, but it could also spur drivers to schedule charging all at once.

According to a recent survey by KPMG, 68 per cent of Canadians are likely to purchase something electric as their next vehicle. (GETTY)

According to a recent survey by KPMG, 68 per cent of Canadians are likely to purchase something electric as their next vehicle. (GETTY)

“Say you and me and three of our friends on the same block all own EVs. If we charge them all at the same time, that creates a capacity challenge on the little feeders running down our lane,” Shaffer says. “What we want is to control the charging so that I charge, then you charge, then our next buddy down the street charges.”

Enmax says it will launch a pilot program later this year to encourage drivers to shift their charging behaviour from on-peak to off-peak times.

Shaffer is working with utilities to test consumer preferences for charging cars. He expects EV owners won’t care if their car charges at 5 p.m. or in the middle of the night after it’s plugged in, as long as it’s ready to use in the morning. If they were forced to give up control of when they can run their air conditioning or use their oven, that would be a different story, he says.

“Think about what people are willing to do to save a few cents a liter on gasoline. People drive across town to save a few cents,” he says. “So if you’re being told, ‘Hey, you can fuel your [electric] car at half the cost, or get a discount on your bill if you hand over some of these controls,’ I think people are more open to those types of things in the transportation space.”

Last month, the Alberta Utilities Commission released a report looking at so-called “smart-charging” technology that would help stagger charging times. Shaffer says the commission did not release any “action items,” as the issue is still seen as fairly remote. After all, there still aren’t many EVs on the roads of a province known for producing heavy oil.

Shaffer says utilities in Ontario and British Columbia will have it easier, since many homes there are already equipped with smart electricity meters. But he’s not expecting the work to be particularly costly in any province. Drivers continuing to charge cars at the “worst” time of the day is ultimately the more expensive scenario, he adds.

When will electric cars take over?

DesRosiers Automotive Consultants believe utilities will have time on their side. According to their analysis, by 2030 there will be between 33 million and 35 million vehicles on Canadian roads, and a “very high” percentage will have internal combustion engines.

“Electric vehicles will dominate new vehicle sales. Although, it will be many decades before more than half of the vehicles in operation are electrified,” Dennis DesRosiers wrote in a recent report.

If nothing else, the Texas blackout of 2021 showed that electricity grids do not do well with surprises. For Shaffer, it makes sense for utilities to address a change they know is coming.

“Why not get ahead of this?” he says. “Why not start to better integrate what is clearly going to be a big part of our electricity grid going forward?”

Jeff Lagerquist is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jefflagerquist.

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