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Can the U.S. Electricity Grid Support All-Electric Vehicles?

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Progressive politicians and climate activists often argue that America is going through an energy “transition” to move away from fossil fuels that produce CO2 emissions towards wind, solar, and other renewable fuel sources that produce zero emissions. A full transition to “zero emission” all-battery electric vehicles (BEVs) over the next decade is a key aspect of this movement. Yet in truth there is no such thing as a zero-emission vehicle.  Producing the batteries for BEVs creates a prodigious amount of CO2 emissions, as do the power plants that generate the power to charge BEVs over their lifetimes. In short, CO2 emissions have only been shifted elsewhere to support a speculative expectation that over their lifetimes, BEVs will significantly reduce emissions.

Presuming a purported transition to BEVs over the next decade, a key question arises: Can the U.S. electricity grid support an all-BEV America? To answer that question, a few calculations are required. Let’s start with the current electricity needs.  As of 2023, there are about 131 million households in the U.S., which use an average of 29.37 kWh per day. Thus, the total daily use is about 3.85 billion kWh.

Now consider the additional electricity generation capacity needed to convert the gas-powered auto fleet to electricity.  There are currently about 278 million cars on the road with an average daily commute of about 40 miles. A normal range of today’s BEVs on a full charge is about 240 miles. But accounting for BEV manufacturers’ recommendation that drivers maintain a state of charge between 10% and 80%, we can reasonably expect about 168 miles between charges (70% of 240 miles).

Given 168 miles of range at an average of 40 miles for the average daily commute, we can expect a BEV to be charged every four days or so. Presuming a battery size of 80 kW, charging from 10% to 80% state of charge would require 56 kW (70% of 80 kW). With 278 million vehicles charging every 4 days, 70 million vehicles on average would need to be charged daily — which would require 3.9 billion kWh per day. Thus, converting to an all-BEV world, on any given day, charging 70 million BEVs out of a total of 278 million would require a doubling of current electricity generation capacity.

And where does this electricity come from?  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, sources of energy generation in the U.S. in 2022 were natural gas at 39.8%, coal at 19.5%, nuclear at 18.2%, and renewables at 21.5%. That is, fossil fuels represent about 60% of energy generation.  While renewables are making up an increasing share of U.S. electricity, and natural gas is increasing as a cleaner replacement to coal, to double electric energy production over the coming decades (presuming the existing infrastructure could be scaled up in such a short period of time), most of that energy would still have to come from fossil fuels.

Let’s consider where the current trends are taking us for the next few years.  A recent report by Bloomberg NEF projected that roughly 50% of all new passenger cars sold in the U.S. would be electric vehicles, rising to over 80% by 2040. According to the latest 2021 statistics from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a historically low 3.4 million passenger vehicles were sold in the U.S. Using this low figure as a baseline, and if Bloomberg is correct that 50% of all new passenger cars sold in 2030 were electric, there would be an increased electricity demand of 95.2 million kWh daily (1.7 million x 56 kWh), rising to 152.3 million kWh (2.72 million x 56 kWh) by 2040. This would translate to a major strain on the nation’s electric grid.

Consider also the strain on the power system of an average home. Charging an electric vehicle overnight with a total of 56 kW is almost the daily equivalent usage of two average homes without an electric vehicle. For larger vehicles such as the Ford F-150 Lightning, with an extended-range 131 kWh battery, that number rises to the daily equivalent of three average homes.

The general consensus is that utilities will be able to keep up with electric vehicle adoption due to planned infrastructure upgrades costing hundreds of billions of dollars.  But many will recall there are some states that have had trouble keeping up with demand — notably California, who in the summer of 2022 experienced rolling blackouts due to excessive heat, and at one point even asked electric vehicle owners to refrain from charging their vehicles over the Labor Day weekend. Given the long cycles for infrastructure upgrades, states with aggressive electric vehicle mandates will be strained to keep up with electric vehicle adoption — especially since adoption rates are unpredictable, making capacity planning difficult.

But where electric utilities are most vulnerable is not so much in power generation, but in long-distance transmission and local power distribution. Since electric vehicle mandates are generally accompanied by decarbonization efforts, that means more energy must be transmitted from rural wind and solar installations. This means dealing with multiple government regulatory agencies that can span counties, states, and various utility providers as well as communities that don’t want high power transmission lines near their neighborhoods. This also means permitting delays due to environmental impact studies that are required for all new energy projects.

With an aging electric grid, significant upgrades will be required to meet current state and federal government electric vehicle adoption mandates, many of which target the early and mid-2030s. Local grid improvements will be imperative to ensure a positive electric vehicle charging experience, not only for homeowners but for those at public electric vehicle charging stations. Add in commercial vehicle charging operations, local utilities will, over a relatively short period of time, need major infrastructure upgrades to increase local grid capacity.

Given all these challenges, it is unrealistic to expect the necessary infrastructure will be readily available and convenient for consumers. Fortunately, there is a realistic alternative to BEVs which is being ignored by politicians: hybrid vehicles. Hybrid vehicles provide significantly greater fuel economy and savings in CO2 emissions relative to traditional vehicles, with lower environmental degradation compared to BEVs due to batteries that are a fraction of the size. Hybrid vehicles are the smart choice for now and into the future, particularly with plug-in hybrids that provide electric motor efficiency for local commutes along with the convenience and range of an internal combustion engine for longer trips.

Walter Myers III

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
Walter is a Principal Engineering Manager leading a team of engineers, working with customers to drive their success in the Microsoft Azure Cloud. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, where he is an adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Science & Religion (MASR) program teaching on Darwinian evolution from a design-centric perspective. He is also a board member of the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a classical charter school in Southern California associated with Hillsdale College.