And Now: Grid Anxiety

Imagine: It’s Friday evening, and the sun is down. You are rolling home in your environmentally responsible EV after an honest day’s work, emitting exactly zero greenhouse gases. You give a wave to your likewise electrified neighbor who’s bringing home the bacon to wife and family. You put the car in the garage and hook it up to the charger that nice electrician had installed. You shout “daddy’s home!” Suddenly, all hell breaks loose.

A huge fireball shoots into the sky as the transformer on the pole out on the street explodes. Down at the corner, another explosion. A block down, a substation throws angry arcs into the night, then goes up in flames.

Suddenly, it is pitch dark and dead silent. Minutes later, the silence is pierced by the sound of sirens …

This is the nightmare scenario that flashes through the heads and across the spreadsheets of managers at the nation’s electric utilities. While some of them already draw hockey stick graphs and count the money they will make from all those electric cars that will hit the road soon, others are very, very worried.

“Electric vehicles have the potential to completely transform our business,” says David Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group. He’s right. It could blow it up.

Not since air conditioning spread across the country was the power industry faced with such a potential surge in consumption. We all know what can happen on a hot evening when everybody comes home and turns on the A/C. This is nothing compared to what that Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt can do to the circuitry.

“Plugged into a socket, an electric car can draw as much power as a small house. The surge in demand could knock out power to a home or a neighborhood,” explains Associated Press, here via The Toledo Blade.

The drivers of any market are fear and greed. So much for the fear.

Now for the greed part: Last year, Americans spent $325 billion on gasoline. Your friendly utility company would like to have a slice of that monster pie.

So as you are reading this, power companies are scratching their heads and are sifting through what little data there is to divine where the first pockets of EVs are most likely to appear. That’s where they will put in beefier equipment.

Utilities think they have enough plants and equipment to power hundreds of thousands of electric cars. The problem is in the grid. And in a phenomenon long known as keeping up with the Joneses, or what car makers and utilities now call “clustering.”

Thick pockets of EVs could suddenly crop up where

  • Generous subsidies are offered by states and localities
  • The weather is mild, batteries perform better in warmer climes, but A/C cuts down on range in really hot ones
  • High-income and environmentally conscious commuters live

And if your electric company doesn’t do something now, this is where the transformers will go kaboom.

California cities including Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and Monrovia could suddenly have several vehicles on a block.

Down South, Progress Energy Inc. plans for clusters in Raleigh, Cary, and Asheville, N.C., and around Orlando and Tampa, Fla.

Duke Energy is expecting the same in Charlotte and Indianapolis. The entire territory of Texas’ Austin Energy is expected to be an electric-vehicle hot spot.

But look at the bright side: “Sorry, can’t come to work today. We had rolling brownouts all night, and my charger was taken off the grid remotely. Better luck tomorrow, boss!”

The absolutely most nightmarish scenario? Nobody buys the EVs and the hefty equipment has been put in for nothing. You’ll read it in your electric bill, one way or the other.

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2 of 71 comments
  • Redseca2 Redseca2 on Nov 29, 2010

    I am sure that the "horse stable owners association" had equally dismal predictions regarding the horseless carriage and the uncontrolled introduction of gasoline into America's communities back in 1895 or so.

  • Bill Safreed Bill Safreed on Nov 30, 2010

    I've seen exploding transformers and burning utility poles, kinda pretty.... and scary when all goes dark and quiet.