Fast forward a decade and the way we power our cars or heat our homes may look a lot different than it does today. Rather than stopping at the gas station every week to fill up, you’ll plug your electric vehicle (EV) into a small port on the side of your house anytime it’s sitting in the driveway. Instead of a natural gas-powered furnace or boiler, you’ll have an electric mini-split heat pump or two, a technology that works like an air conditioner in the summer, but when thrown in reverse, can actually heat your home, even if you live in a cold climate. While you’re at it, you may also swap out your gas stove, water heater and clothes dryer and make your home fully electric. Needless to say, while your gas bill might shrink or go away altogether, your electricity bill will go up, though on the whole, you’ll likely be saving a substantial amount of money. On average, it’s about three times more expensive to fill up a gas car than to charge an EV. And heat pumps usually offer savings over gas or oil furnaces, especially when volatile gas prices spike.
Countries across the world are banking on this “electrification” of our homes and businesses — and a greening of electricity generation — to slash climate-warming emissions. Here in the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act offers generous incentives and tax credits, which greatly reduce the cost of the new technologies, and in some cases, make them free for lower-income folks. (Check your eligibility with this calculator.) But if we quickly ramp up our electricity use, it begs the question, can the grid deliver? Wencong Su, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in power systems, says it’s a complicated issue, but in short, the answer is “no way, not even close.” That is, unless we start making some big changes, relatively quickly. For starters, there’s the question of quantity: As we replace cars and appliances that directly burn fossil fuels with ones powered by electricity, will there actually be enough electrons to go around? Su says if you want an EV now, you shouldn’t be concerned. But as high-consuming technologies like electric cars and heat pumps become widespread, we’ll need a plan for making more electricity. For example, California recently passed a law requiring 35% of new cars to be zero-emissions by 2026, and 100% by 2035. To power millions of new EVs and electrify other parts of the economy still relying on fossil fuels, the state estimates it will need to triple power generation and build solar and wind facilities three to five times faster than it is now.
Su says things get even more complicated when you factor in the strain this could put on the transmission and distribution system, the network of large and small lines that carry electricity to our homes, buildings and businesses. These lines are designed to carry specific loads, and if demand rises beyond the limit of what a particular part of the transmission or distribution system can handle, we’ll need more capacity. If you add an EV charger to your house, it’s no big deal. But if suddenly most of your neighbors do too, “you could reach a point where we’re pushing the limits of the local distribution infrastructure that supplies a neighborhood,” Su says. “What makes it even more complicated is that user behavior of EV charging is unknown. It’s a black box. Will people all charge their EVs at the same time? Will a user charge at the same time every day, or at 5 p.m. today and 3 p.m. tomorrow? This makes it very challenging to predict the load.” Indeed, California’s plan for handling a surge in EVs depends on scenarios that predict charging during mostly off-peak hours, which some argue may be an unrealistic assumption.
We can of course upgrade our transmission and distribution lines, but it’s going to cost us. The U.S. electric grid has about 160,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and more than 5 million miles of distribution lines. Currently, the cost to build transmission lines is between $1 million and $5 million per mile, with distribution lines coming in around $30,000 to $150,000. “No one wants to pay for it,” Su says. “That’s why you’re seeing utilities focus on demand response or time-of-day pricing, which use price incentives to try to encourage users to use electricity during off-peak hours so they can keep rates roughly where they are now. This buys the utilities some time before they have to make major investments. But we’re adding all these incentives for EVs and heat pumps and basically skipping the infrastructure part.” The big thing that’s saving us for the time being, Su says, is the low market penetration of these new technologies, although this could be changing quickly. Last year, heat pumps outsold gas furnaces for the first time in the U.S., even without the benefit of the Inflation Reduction Act incentives, which started kicking in in January.
We’re adding all these incentives for EVs and heat pumps and basically skipping the infrastructure part.
There appears to be no getting around that fact that we’ll eventually have to build more power plants and make expensive upgrades to the grid. But Su notes these aren’t the only tools we have to keep the grid functioning as electricity demand rises. Su’s own research focuses on a variety of “smart grid” technologies, including DC microgrids, which could ease the related challenge of bringing more renewable energy onto the grid. He’s also optimistic that dynamic pricing schemes, which incentivize use during specific times, can help reduce demand during peak times and prevent brownouts. He also has his eye on new approaches, like “multi-life energy storage,” which envisions repurposing old EV batteries into a dispersed network of battery banks for backup and emergency use. Right now, he says the market penetration for EVs is so low that there isn’t much of a market yet for the used batteries, which are generally removed when they no longer hold three-quarters of their original charge. One side effect of having millions more EVs on the road is they’ll provide a steady supply of diminished, but still useful, batteries that can help shore up the grid.
Su thinks it will likely take a combination of all these approaches to prepare for the electrification era. We may also have to adjust some of our core expectations about electricity — namely that it’s cheap, it’s there whenever we need it, and it’s something we consume but don’t produce. As energy gets more expensive in an effort to preserve reliability, Su worries not just about a balance between supply and demand, but a gap between haves and have nots. He says neighborhoods with people able to afford new technologies like EVs and heat pumps are most likely to get the upgraded grid infrastructure. They also have the ability to put solar panels on their roofs and sell electricity, not just buy it. "We really need to pay attention to how this transition will impact underserved communities,” Su says. “People without extra income are already very sensitive to price, and they may not have the luxury of investing in technologies like solar panels or battery backup systems, which help them ride out a power outage or actually become energy producers.”
In short, Su says, the next iteration of our electric grid will only be a success if it’s both reliable and fair.
Story by Lou Blouin