U.S. Needs Electric Vehicles; Our Grid Needs Help to Meet Demand

The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Because electric vehicles on average produce less than half of the carbon emissions of a conventional vehicle over their lifetime, they are crucial in reducing carbon emissions.

A transition to more EVs on U.S. roads is not only essential in the transportation sector but also in the evolution of America’s national clean energy platform. Congress and state leaders have heard the call, and policies are being put in place to support an expansion of EVs across the country.

Government efforts to increase EV use are a crucial step in mitigating climate change, but more EVs on the road will also put an enormous strain on an already stressed U.S. electric grid. The deadly California Camp Fire sparked by aged PG&E transmission lines, the July 13 Manhattan blackout and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ D+ rating of the U.S. electric grid in 2017 are all glaring examples of how the American power grid is increasingly at risk of costly blackouts and dangerous accidents.

In the same 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, ASCE states: “Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 20th century. Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.”

As Americans embrace EVs, the federal government and states need to continue exploring policies that help meet the demand while preparing the grid to handle more EVs and other renewable technologies. In August, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, which would provide roughly $1 billion for EV charging infrastructure along highway corridors. The House Energy and Commerce Committee similarly approved the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, which provides $925 million in grants to state and local authorities for EV infrastructure.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is working with stakeholders on how to improve its electric transmission incentives policy that would encourage the development of infrastructure needed to ensure grid reliability.

If national policies like these move forward, they will boost state efforts already making significant progress on the adoption of EVs and expansion of charging infrastructure. California, New York and New Jersey lead the pack in spending on EV infrastructure, combining to invest $1.3 billion in EV charging stations, but the push for EVs is not limited to coastal blue states.

In 2017, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming signed a memorandum of understanding stating their intention to establish a Regional Electric Vehicle Plan for the West. While the REV West Plan was nonbinding, several states have met their promise to make major cross-region highway corridors more accessible to EVs.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality announced earlier this year it would award $3.8 million to organizations looking to install EV charging stations in its communities. The Arizona Corporation Commission approved a plan in July guiding utility companies to propose programs that expand the use of EVs in the state. Additionally, the National Association of State Energy Officials has heralded this MOU policy as beneficial to the overall market, and now other regions of the country are looking at implementing similar policy signals.

Efforts by Congress, FERC and numerous states are all promising steps to increase the presence of EVs across the United States and thus reduce carbon emissions, but more EVs will rapidly increase electricity demand.

The Edison Electric Institute and the Institute for Electric Innovation predicts there will be 7 million EVs on the road in the United States by 2025, and these vehicles will need 5 million charging stations to support them. In 2017, according to Fleetcarma, recharging an EV that commutes roughly 25 miles required the same amount of electricity as a small household. This means widespread adoption of EVs would double the electricity demand of a community.

In 2019, WIRES, the trade association promoting investments in the North American electric transmission system, along with the Brattle Group, prepared the report “The Coming Electrification of the North American Economy” and found that $30 billion to $90 billion of incremental transmission investments will be necessary in the United States by 2030 to meet the changing needs of the system due to electrification, with an additional $20 to $60 billion needed from 2030 to 2050.

These figures highlight the new strain EVs could bring to an already taxed system. Reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector — the largest emitter in the United States — demands more electrification spurred by action in Congress and by state governments. To safely accomplish electrification and keep the lights on across the United States, these same groups need to consider ways to secure and strengthen the grid.


Zolaikha Strong is the director of energy policy and electrical markets at the Copper Development Association and the International Copper Association.

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