By on November 28, 2010

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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71 Comments on “And Now: Grid Anxiety...”

  • avatar

    Assuming the volt recharges 10 kWh in 5 hours, that is 2.2 kW incl. some inefficiencies. this is less than a dryer, less than an AC….   the charger also could be set so that it doesn’t charge before 9 pm so that it doesn’t coincide with AC. It also could measure the current at the panel and throttle down whenever the panel uses more than 50 amp [insert your number]. So when my dryer comes on, it pauses. These are all very simple solutions to the problem. It is not rocket science to overcome this problem.
    Then there (hopefully) will be the smart grid that lets me chose when to charge when electricity is the cheapest (=demand low, like at night).
    I don’t want to downplay the issues, but the described scenario of exploding transformers would indicate the utility had never prepared for any surges and that EV chargers just remain dumb. It will take many years (time to prepare) before EVs will become a problem for the average residential neighborhood.
    Of course, there are the grids that are already overloaded and scary. I’ve seen the house-to house wiring in Florida that looks like in a third world country people are just stealing electricity (but it actually was installed like that by the utility) – but that is not an issue related to EV only.

    It seems when it comes to EV there are only black or white scenarios and no one seems to think outside the box. Sad to see TTAC articles don’t show the gray areas either. the truth is in between, not black or white. People said horses would never disappear because at the time gasoline was sold in pharmacies in tiny bottles and cars were inherently unreliable and barely anyone could fix or drive them. Obviously people thought outside the box and IC cars now are a viable mode of transportation.

    • 0 avatar

      According to the cited article “The first Leafs and Volts can draw 3,300 watts, and both Nissan and GM may boost that to 6,600 watts. The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car with a huge battery, can draw 16,800 watts, the equivalent of 280 60-watt light bulbs.”

      Hardly a hair dryer (and never put “hair dryer” and “A/C”) in the same sentence.
      My house on Long Island had 400A service (and I had a $700 electric bill). It would have handled a Tesla with aplomb. But who knows, with two pool pumps running, and another one for the koi pond, with three heavy duty central air conditioners in the basement, maybe we would have been better off with a Leaf.

    • 0 avatar

      I meant cloths dryer.
      My stove has 40amp / 240 V wiring (not sure of actual usage, but that is good for 7200 W assuming load is max. 75% of breaker rating), AC has 20A/240V and dryer has 30A/240 V. Assuming the 6600 W volt charger requires a separate installation (not just plug in existing 120 V outlet), they easily could install an amp-clamp around my service and modulate charging from 1000W-6600 W depending on my other loads. Assuming home-charging can handle some longer charging times this easily could resolve the overload problem.

    • 0 avatar

      “It is not rocket science to overcome this problem.”

      Conceptualizing anything is easy. However, bringing a concept to fruition is incredibly hard. Its capital intensive and it takes time. You are incorrect to imply its no big deal.

      Bringing a technology concept to fruition takes millions of dollars and months and months of development, followed by months and months of testing, multiple patent filings, tooling design and production, distribution agreements, establishing a parts and service network, training installers and service techs and a myriad of other costs associated with bringing any solution to market.

      “Obviously people thought outside the box and IC cars now are a viable mode of transportation.”

      Yeah, and it only took decades of research and uncountable billions of dollars (adjusted for inflation) to get there.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      $700 Bertel?
      Wow, just wow.
      My bill for last month was $16.11. We average about $45 to $50 for the year but this past October was an extremely temperate month in Georgia.
      I guess all the retired banjo players and pig farmers help keep our electricity cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Steven, a house with 400A service tends to be large (or is owned by a professional welder). Our place has three AC units and five refrigerators in various locations. In the winter we run about $700 per month in north FL. In the summer we see about $550 per month, except right around now when the AC doesn’t run and then it can dip as low as $350. And we have one of the lowest per-kWh rates in the country.
      But you also have to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Our utility actually has a minimum charge which I think is around $45 per month (I haven’t seen a bill that low in decades, so I’m not sure of the exact number). Many utilities also roll other city fees and taxes into your bill (stormwater drainage is a great example, which I pay for but don’t benefit from, yay, thanks modern progressive tax-hounds).
      Frankly, our electric company is run by a bunch of complete jerks who spend more money on brand marketing and new logos than they do on plant equipment, and I think I’d rather pay the good folks of, say, Shell than feed any more dollars into our cancerous public-private utility.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    This, along with the cost of making electricity, has to be the largest oversight in the EV movement. The US has the power grid of a second or third world country that is usually maxed out in summer as is. Unfortunately the will to fix it or upgrade it doesn’t come until something explodes, so a few hundred transformers might have to explode before anything gets done. New York City (and most of the Northeast) suffered a massive blackout in 2003 because of a single power line in Ohio, add all of the EVs to an already frail system and watch that happen again, and again, and again…
    On the cost front, I know people that bring one to PA will be pleasantly surprised after the electric rate caps expire next month.

  • avatar

    We’ll have to update a former peanut farmer whose brother owned a gas bar..

    “Each of us will have to use less electricity and be prepared to pay more for it.”

  • avatar

    Meh! Slow news day? Sounds like a Fox News “we are all gonna die” segments.
    As the above poster said, that’s about 10 amps at 220V. Electric dryers and water heaters can consume more. Most homes have at least 100 amp service (mine has 200 amp) so I don’t see a problem.
    Transformers don’t blow up for reasons like that, they have automatic overload shutdown.
    Plenty of reasons that EV’s could fail, I doubt this is one of them.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sorry, but “the poster above” is misinformed.  EVs launched in the US will adhere to the SAE J1772 standard.
      That standard specifies a peak current of 16 A when charged from an orange extension cord off your 120 V receptacle. That would be around 2000 Watts. It would also take forever.
      The SAE J1772 “Level 2” quickcharger that hangs off a 240V circuit is rated at 80A peak. That would be 19,200 Watts. That’s what people will have in their garages.  A few of them in a neighborhood could bring that puny transformer up the pole to its knees.
      A typical battery charge profile starts with a high current when the battery is near empty. That charge current goes down after the battery fills up. That’s what is creating the most anxiety. It’s after work. Everybody coming home. Everybody starting A/C. Lights on. TV on. Laundry into the machine. Car charger running at full tilt.

      If you’ve ever lived in areas will rolling blackouts or brownouts, then you know what I mean. I had to add power conditioners and banks of UPS to my (rather hefty) computer systems in the USA, just to protect from the brownouts in a Long Island summer.

    • 0 avatar

      Nobody is going to get 19 KW at 240 Volts for their electric car at a residence in the U.S. (or most anywhere else) not built with such an infrastructure from the start.
      Obviously, grid upgrades will be needed in the sort of upscale, inner suburban neighborhoods where electric cars will sell first.  Frankly, these places need grid upgrades anyway.
      It’s a red herring given that the Nissan Leaf only has a 24 KWh battery.  The 8 KW used in electric clothes dryers, air conditioners, ovens, and water heaters that are common in U.S. homes will charge these electric cars overnight just fine.
      Nissan recommends a 40 Amp circuit at 220-240 Volts.  There are two such circuits abandoned at my house right now, from a disused window air conditioner and an electric stove.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point, BS. I didn’t think of the fact that when plugging in, current will be highest.
      Some delay-charging might help. but will people delay their charging without having a financial benefit?
      The utilities are pushing more and more for ” time of sue” rates, even for residents. Maybe that encourage people to use charging delays and only charge after 9 pm or whenever off-time starts.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Bertel Schmitt:

      I would expect with the absurdly high rates we pay for electricity that they’ll invest some of those sky-high profits into infrastructure. In fact, if they don’t do that in my area pretty soon they stand to lose me as a customer. If the grid doesn’t become more reliable, then electricity becomes just another one of those things I’ll have provide for myself, since the market is corrupt and honest deals don’t appear to exist anymore. Sucks for renters and condo dwellers though.

      I tell you, in the modern day U.S. it costs more and more just to avoid living the lifestyle of the disenfranchised… This is what happens when so many people make capitalism their religion, rather than logically tempering it with socialist controlsand rationally using it as a tool for economic development. Capitalism and Socialism are both extremes; each needs the other for balance. But we’re too brainwashed to love the corporatocracy in the U.S.

      A whole lot of people will one day soon find themselves living in the company dorm, spending their paycheck at the company store, and working 80 hours per week for crap wages. I wonder if they will still go around screaming “USA! USA!”, like they do now?

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      You lost me at “disenfranchised,” but in skimming the rest I see other buzzwords like “socialism” and something ending in “ocracy” so I do appreciate you sending up that flare that a nutjob rant was inbound.
      So you’re going to make your own power, eh? And how do you propose to do that for less than it costs you off the wire? Unless you’re one of those unwashed hippie types who can actually eke out a living on a trickle of solar juice and you have thousands of dollars to invest into the effort, you will find the cost of personal power generation is staggeringly large.
      In my heavy equipment sales business, we sell a LOT of power generation equipment all around the world, so I happen to have lots of useful and relevant information at my disposal. I also put a whole-house generator in my new home a few years ago, and I did the math out of curiosity. For anything approaching a normal lifestyle (which I admit, anyone frenetically waving the flag of socialism probably doesn’t have), your best cost/energy option is diesel. Again, ignoring the very large initial cost of a full-time generator that can run a normal house, and ignoring the maintenance costs, and not trying to calculate some kind of “cost” for the annoyance of downtime associated with that maintenance, and not accounting for delivery costs of diesel and so on, I determined that it would cost approximately 6 times as much to run a regular house off the grid (in 2006).
      And by the way, that generator, the transfer switches, probably the services of the electricians to wire it up, and all those thousands of gallons of diesel will probably have to be purchased from some sort of evil “corporatocracy.”

  • avatar

    When the electric vehicle industry succeeds and there are many vehicles plugging in for a charge for 5 – 8 hours – when will be the “off hours” time?  There won’t be any “off hours” – the electric vehicles will be demanding electricity at all hours. There are only a certain number of 5-8 hour periods in each night.

  • avatar

    Say goodbye to the lower cost off-peak night rates once electric cars become more prevalent – nights will probably end up being higher than daytime rates given time.

    For those of use that choose to stick with internal combustion as our transportation solution, we get hosed with higher rates for running our dishwashers/air conditioners/lights etc. Thanks to de-regulation/privatization, I bet the power companies are salivating at the future profit potential. Invest in utility stocks now kiddies!

  • avatar

    This is just a spike in the upward trend of household electric consumption in the past 40 years.  The “normal” sized service panel for a house gone form 60-80A to 200A+.
    Yes, this may cause pockets of distribution system overload in affluent burbs like Palo Alto or Long Island.  Electric Utilities will stumble some and then adapt to this new demand.  They also have a nice new income stream from the boost in base load consumption to finance the required improvements.  Beyond the local distribution level the weak economy has left plenty of slack in the system at the generation and transmission levels.    Having an EV that “talks” to you Smart Meter also opens up all sorts of demand side management possibilities.

  • avatar

    Oh dear, a new technology poses new challenges. Well that is just unacceptable… Instead of dealing with those challenges we better run away. Quickly!
    Good grief, sometimes you really are taking the anti-electric bias too far.

    • 0 avatar

      Belittling those who point out the many significant problems that still need to be solved is pretty juvenile.

      Those who recognize just how comprehensive the changes will have to be and acknowledge the incredible amounts of time, engineering brain power and money needed are heroes of any society or enterprise. Unlike you, they’ve actually stopped to think about what it will take to get from A to B and had the courage to ask “Does this make sense?” and “Can we afford it?”

      Running blindly toward something without thinking about where you’re going, deciding how you’ll get there and assessing the costs involved doesn’t usually turn out too well. Recent examples include General Motors, Chrysler, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…

    • 0 avatar

      Continuing to squander energy as we do certainly qualifies as running blindly into something we seem unwilling to grasp.

  • avatar

    Imagine this:
    You’re a 21 year old from a poor family in the middle crystal meth territory (red state family values and all) and your government has spent so much in defense of foreign oil fields, and the politics of fear,  that there’s no money for you to go to college and your public school was so bad anyway that your skill set is minimal.
    Since unions have been eviscerated and manufacturing has been shipped off to the lowest bidder no avenue out of poverty is available. You have the ironic choice of going overseas – in the army – to protect strategic oil reserves.
    You will watch your friends die and you will come back so traumatized that your life is effectively over. And since your thankful govt. cut your benefits to balance a budget – you’re handed a bottle pills and told to suck it up.
    I admire writers of these articles for their bravery and moral values.  Their analysis of the situation and the  sacrifices each choice entails is a sobering beacon of light.  Thank you and happy thanksgiving.

    • 0 avatar

      The point you are making is that we weren’t so dependent on overseas oil, the US would be involved in two less wars at the moment and an electrically powered vehicle will put a dent in this dependency.
      There is one main hole in your argument.  After having served in the US Army 40 years ago to prevent dominoes from falling over, I must tell you that life goes on.  Granted that turning people into hamburger sucks, but the experience does set the backdrop for the rest of your life.
      If you haven’t served in the military, that’s fine.  For those that did, thanks.  Happy Thanksgiving.

    • 0 avatar

      “your government has spent so much in defense of foreign oil fields”

      Umm, you mean the foreign oil fields of which the United States is the primary customer? Those foreign oil fields? The foreign oil fields that supply the energy without which the country would come to a very quick, very dramatic halt?

      When worldwide oil supplies become more depleted, we better hope the Chinese don’t get the bright idea to invade Saudi Arabia, etc. and re-direct all of those oil rich countries’ oil output to China. Good public schools and good, affordable health care won’t mean much when we can’t turn on the lights, don’t have fuel for the trucks that deliver text books and medicine and can’t heat the buildings in winter.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      @ProberT: Hey, congrats, you used the word “imagine,” too. Nice tie-in with the article. I almost missed it, thinking your rant was entirely irrelevant and off-topic, but then I caught the subtle connection.

  • avatar

    All of this is making the Volt stand out as a relatively practical choice. Tesla’s 300-mile range battery for the S is indeed for the birds. Only millionaires can a) afford the car (~$70K for the 300-mile version) b) spend another $10K outfitting their home with proper circuitry and Tesla’s rapid chargers.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      You may not be thrifty enough. When I was a programmer making about $90K, I bought my first $70K car. In cash. That was 10 years ago. I wasn’t anything close to being “a millionaire” and my only debt was my mortgage (and no, there weren’t equity liens or other such things involved).

  • avatar
    George B

    Bertel, I think this problem is manageable, but I hadn’t thought about the problem of EV clustering.  Imagine an old college town with old transformers and lots of peer pressure to appear to be green.  However, in the real world of suburban America with 200A breaker panels and slower EV adoption I see a win-win solution:  Delay and slow down the battery charging to increase battery life.  Most days the battery pack will not be fully discharged so a full charge can be achieved before morning at a lower charging current.  In addition, there would be benefits to letting the battery cool off before charging begins.  Designing the charger to make expensive batteries last more cycles would also reduce peak demand problems.

    • 0 avatar

      “Delay and slow down the battery charging to increase battery life.”

      The wording of that part of your comment made me think about how governments usually work. I wouldn’t be surprised if EV charger installations start to require a special, rationed permit. Rather than deal with the electrical grid problem in a pro-active, sensible way, I wouldn’t be surprised if utilities, especially municipal utilities, just put limits on how many high-draw chargers can be installed in a given area.

      Likely utility response to your permit application: “Sorry, your permit for a 240v EV charger is denied because the infrastructure in your area can not support the additional load. You will be placed on a waiting list. No further information is available at this time.”

      Governments love solutions that can be drummed up in a single, one-hour meeting and explained in a paragraph or less. Doing things any other way just takes too much darn work.

  • avatar

    I’m a good candidate for an electric bicycle, but I really do need the exercise that I get commuting with old fashioned peddle power.

  • avatar

    “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!”
    If you have a blackout/transformer blowout, and you have a Volt, you can still drive your car for work.

  • avatar

    It annoys me to no end to think that all rate payers in a given utility’s footprint will have to foot the bill for the ten or hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to upgrade the electrical infrastructure in the upscale neighborhoods where EV’s are likely to cluster.

    These grid upgrades won’t fund themselves. The rich get richer, buy expensive toys and the rest of us have to pay in the form of higher utility rates. Why should normal folks have to foot part of the the bill for an expensive transportation device that only the rich can afford?

    I’m all for reducing dependency on foreign energy and ecological living, but I’m dead against a subsidy for the rich that comes right out of my pocket. Aren’t regular people getting jerked around enough already?

    • 0 avatar

      This is the same argument retirees and childless households in my area make about their local tax dollars being used for schools. In the case of schools it is a matter of education being critical to having a civil society. With electric cars the argument is different but the effect is similar. Sure, EVs are expensive toys right now, but the goal is for the economies of scale to be such that EVs are affordable for most if not all who want them. Change and progress are not without its pains.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      It is called taxation without representation, and for a short time it was looked down upon.

  • avatar

    I was shocked (ha) to learn how much the utility company oversells their service.  An experienced master electrician told me that the transformers in my neighborhood that serve 5 or 6 homes each are not even close to being able to handle the full load of 6 homes’ 200 Amp service.  (and this is a 7-year old street)  While I didn’t expect them to use transformers big enough for 6×200 Amps, the number he told me was far, far less, probably based on “typical” use.  Bottom line is that everyone can use their AC, but we’re already treading close to the design capacity of that transformer.
    Furthermore, it’s great in theory to have your charger timer kick on at 10PM, but you know that most people will plug in as soon as they come home from work because they expect to run errands in the evening.

    • 0 avatar

      Designing any system is a trade off between handling typical use with occasional spikes for $ dollars or handling absolute, ultimate constant load (which is a one in a ten million occurrence) at $$$. Most consumers prefer the $ solution and companies design around this. You and your electrician might be willing to pay $$ instead of $, but most customer won’t go for it.

      Companies, especially utilities, are under constant pressure to keep prices low, so you really can’t blame them for designing only what most customers are willing to pay for.

    • 0 avatar

      When you design an electrical system the NEC allows for a “diversity factor” in sizing services.  If an apartment house has 15 electric dryers, there is an assumption that all will likely not be running at once.  So, as you add each of those 15 to size your service, each one adds less to your total calculated load.  Otherwise, your service would be much larger than needed.  Utility design is not subject to the rules of the NEC, but from my experience with utilities, they allow loading that is pretty damn high, especially when the conductors (wires) are in free air.  Generally speaking, transformers can take being loaded up pretty well.
      The American grid is barely adequate for the load of today.  At work, we often have days where the utility asks us to shed load.  In the more modern buildings we use the building BMS to remotely curtail load.  We shed load in the older ones the old fashioned way:  we send the Fire Safety folks stationed in the buildings around, shutting off lights and instruct the building engineers to cut A/C equipment.  Utilities have little incentive to upgrade the infrastructure.  My friend used to work for the Northeast Power Coordinating Council and the stories about the 2003 blackout would blow your mind.  One of the engineers was stated as calling that infamous utility and stating that “they were one more trip before making history”…they had that trip and the voltage collapse of the system was under way…

  • avatar

    The underlying problem is that these grid upgrades have been needed for decades but we as a society like to react rather than pro-act. If it takes a few blown transformers to get the progress ball rolling, so be it.

    • 0 avatar

      I live in a city with a municipally owned electrical utility that has been losing money for years. Even though they want to do the right thing (upgrade) there is no money. The more likely response to a few blown transformers is an emergency moratorium on EV charger installations.

    • 0 avatar

      OR, the companies looking to sell the cars or the charging stations will either work with the municipalities or get into the power generation/distribution business themselves and figure out a better way to do it. Yes, I know this is an oversimplification, but I’m not an electrical engineer or an urban planner. There are people out there who are and furthermore there are people out there who are looking to invest in such projects. its that whole Capitalism thing that people either worship, deride or forget about.
      If I produce and sell air conditioners, there probably isn’t that much of an incentive to invest in the grid since the return probably isn’t worth the expense. If I produce electric cars or the charging stations and want to build my emerging market perhaps it is worth partnering with someone to work on the grid, particularly in a market where I’m selling my car. Just a thought.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      It isn’t society, it’s the power companies. Our local utility just finished spending tens of millions on an “experimental solar farm” which they admit will never produce cheaper power. In this economy, really? Why? So they can advertise to the eco-hippies that they’re “exploring green alternatives” even though 99% of their power still comes from very large, very efficient, and yes, very clean oil-burning turbines.
      The bottom line is, it’s their job to make sure things like these grid upgrades are handled. That is presumably one of the reasons we pay them in the first place. The only societal problem related to the grid that I see is unrealistic “greens” making such a racket that the utilities react by wasting money on “alternatives” that simply can’t compete.

  • avatar

    Here is Seattle we just had our first snowmaggedon event, with some people sitting in traffic 6, 7, 10, even 12 hours in bumper to bumper traffic trying to get home.  I can’t wait to see the added gridlock caused by EVs crapping out when their batteries die between having to run the heat, defroster, wipers, and lighting at the bare minimum while sitting and not moving for 10 hours.

  • avatar

    What about the people that do not have private off-street parking ?  Public charging stations instead of parking meters ?

  • avatar

    Let’s look at it a different way for a minute and throw around some more numbers.
    What is on a typical residential electrical bill?  1,000-1,500 kWh/month?  (It varies by season- I just checked and my last 12 months are between 400-1,200.  I’m a miser, but anyway…)  For the sake of argument let’s say a Leaf/Volt/XYZ EV driver charges 10-40 kWh every night.  That is another 300-1,200 kWh each month.  Sure, my own monthly bill jumped by 600 between this April-May (dang weather) and fell similarly from Sept-Oct… and so did all of my neighbors’ bills… but that’s a pretty good chunk of juice.
    Nighttime recharging is all well and good if everybody always recharges at night.  I don’t think we’ll have widespread transformers exploding on every corner, but sometime in the next 1-2 years we’ll see the “perfect storm” of summer heat wave + unusually high concentration of electric cars in small neighborhood = surprise local blackout.  My money is it’ll happen first somewhere in California :)
    Or maybe the utilities will tell people with even-numbered addresses to only recharge their cars on even numbered days, odd/odd… like watering your lawn during water rationing.  OK, not really serious about this last one.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Surprise, Surprise! I bet nobody who voted for Obama realized that “renewable energy” meant “Nuclear Power.” Ultimately, this is where this is going. Electric cars are going to create a huge demand for nuclear power.

    • 0 avatar

      Quite a few Obama intenders gritted their teeth over his backing of “clean coal” and ethanol, but when you consider who the alternative was (and what happened the last time these people voted with their conscience and checked the box marked “Nader”)  you can see why they held their noses.

  • avatar

    Nothing like a little sprinkling of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt to sell news stories about the coming electric cars.  Today we have exploding transformers.  Maybe tomorrow someone will write about the possibility of electric cars electrocuting your children.
    This article spreads fear about potential problems.  Problems that may or may not occur.  We simply don’t know yet.  If too many people choose to drive electric cars and thus place a strain on the grid, the electric company will be more than happy to accomodate people who are willing to consume vast amounts of electricity.  Isn’t that the basis of capitalism?  Supply and demand?  Did we reject gasoline cars 100 years ago because there wasn’t a ready network of gas stations across the country just in case we wanted to visit Aunt Mable in the next state?

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      It isn’t FUD, it’s a realistic proposition about a potential problem — as you apparently agree, since you then spend a second paragraph positing that a solution will be found. (If there’s no problem, why do we need a solution?) The trouble with your conclusion is that power companies do not work according to the principles of capitalism and market forces, and power generation does not lend itself to consumer-friendly bootstrapping solutions that can match the adoption rate that car manufacturers will require for EV to become a viable line of business.

  • avatar

    This is going to go one or both of three ways:
    One, increased investment in the grid, which is necessary no matter what, given years of neglect under as many utilities were privatized (gotta get the dig in).  We’ve spent too long under-investing in infrastructure, and it only got worse when private-industry cost-pressure and capital-investment aversion became rampant.
    Two, the comprehensive roll-out of smart grid technology into the home. There’s no really good reason your EV, dryer, dishwasher and so forth couldn’t communicate with your house’s smart-meter, which in turn can communicate with the utility’s management systems to balance power across the grid.
    Three, everything stays the same and we go to brownout hell and, eventually, accept poor service as “the new normal”.
    I suspect we’ll see the latter because no one has the stomach to make hard choices, but the preferred option is #2: even at the “millions of households” scale, a smart grid is still a lot cheaper than clean, large-scale power generation.

    • 0 avatar

      Three, everything stays the same and we go to brownout hell and, eventually, accept poor service as ”the new normal”.
      There’s a huge existing precedent for this model – cellphones. If our landlines performed as badly as everyday cell service does now, users would have screamed bloody murder. But we’ve come to accept dropped calls and unreliable service as an acceptable trade for mobility.

  • avatar

    The variations in electricity consumption result in huge inefficiencies.  Covering peak loads, for instance, is very expensive.
    Charging electric cars at night will help smooth demand levels for electricity, with resulting cost savings.  An awful lot of charging can go on before night time demand equals daytime demand.

    There have also been proposals that EV’s be used intentionally to store/donate power to smooth demand.

    Trying to put this into perspective, electric cars inherently use less power than ICE cars, whether due to design choices or just their limitations.  This may increase electricty use, but should help with the larger problem which is overall energy consumption.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Power Line Project Faces Challenges in California Valley
    The New York Times
    November 28, 2010
    Page A30
    EL CENTRO, Calif. — The sun is so strong here that people often talk about the temperature being “in the teens,” meaning 113 or above. The wind is so powerful that west of town, signs on an Interstate display the number of miles remaining in which drivers will face dangerous winds, like signs that give the distance to the next city. And to the north, near the end of the San Andreas fault, water underground, hot enough to make steam, flows up through cracks nearly to the surface.
    * * *
    This cluster of resources, a little over 100 miles east of San Diego, would seem to be a boon,  …
    But the problem, sometimes insurmountable, is how to get the energy to consumers. In what may be a dress rehearsal for skirmishes across the country over renewable energy and transmission, San Diego Gas & Electric has spent seven years and $100 million trying to start work on a 117-mile high-voltage line to reach the resources of El Centro.
    The $1.9 billion line would run from the depths of the Imperial Valley over a range of mountains and back down to the southern end of the urban sprawl that runs from Los Angeles through San Diego to the Mexican border. It would double the capacity for transmitting electricity from the valley to the coast, to 2,000 megawatts.
    Although the line won approval from the United States Forest Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the State of California after the utility submitted an 11,000-page environmental impact statement, neighbors and wilderness advocates have filed lawsuits challenging those decisions.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      This is why the grid can’t handle a major new load. The system that is broken and cannot be fixed is the political system, which tells people that they will not have to bear any cost no matter how slight to have their vainest whim satisfied.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, the environuts are their own worst enemies!  One of the biggest challenges with so-called “alternative” energy sources (large-scale solar, wind, geothermal, etc) is that they are almost without exception located far from the urban areas where the energy is consumed.

      This necessitates building new transmission lines to deliver this energy into the grid (which is aging and in places has very little if any reserve capacity left, WHOLE ‘nuther topic), and most of these lines will go through THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.

      Yet still, the envirowhackos fight these transmission lines tooth and nail, even though they are necessary in order to utilize the energy sources that the very same people now favor.

      Go figure . . .

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Lemming

      redmondjp, I love the way that rigid ideologues overgeneralize the views of environmentalists.  You got it wrong, dude.  It’s also interesting how you substitute adolescent name calling for actual facts and logic.  I suppose that’s quicker and easier than real thought, but it does nothing for your credibility.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I’m quite certain the industry will have few problems dealing with this new source of demand for electricity. Adoption rates are going to be very slow, and in many cases the recharging can be programed to happen in the dead of the night when the utilities typically have excess generation and transmission capacity.
    Here in Northern California, smart meters with the capability to bill different rates depending on the time of day are being rolled out rapidly. With that in place, early adopters are likely to use some kind of a timer arrangement to recharge the vehicle at the cheapest rates available.
    All in all, this is just media doing what it does most: Trying to gin up fear and controversy in order to capture eyeballs.

    • 0 avatar

      John, I think its an excellent point to bring up.  We do live in a society of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” mentality.  Having the good fortune of living in a state (Texas) with a rather new grid, I’ve not had to deal with brown or black outs.  With that said, I have concern for the older grids (particularly the Northeast) and compounding load increase that will be created by electric vehicles.  Just as with the totally underfunded highway and railroad system, the power grid is the next “sore” to open up.

    • 0 avatar

      @John: I agree that adoption rates will determine much of how the EV question is answered. I see the high initial prices as a barrier to quick widespread adoption, and the fact that cars last longer than they used to as another barrier. For people like me who usually keep their cars a long time, it may be 10 years before I seriously consider an EV as my daily driver.

  • avatar

    Wow! What a flame fest in just a few hours! Kinda like an exploding transformer. I’m very disappointed to see such a sensationalist and foolish article among the quality work published here.
    I’m an electronics engineer, 30 years experienced in the chip business. At night I teach electric vehicle technology at Portland State U. Just a few facts for the discussion:
    * Don’t confuse maximum rating with normal load. Production EV chargers can adjust their load according to the depth of discharge and time available. A typical EV uses around 0.3 kWh per mile. The average US driver goes 29 miles per day. That’s an average charge of about 9 kWh each night. 9 kWh is 1000 watts for 9 hours. A full charge of the 24 kWh Nissan Leaf is 2000 watts for 12 hours. These are normal household loads like a clothes dryer or air conditioning.
    * The SAE J1772 connector is universal, so it’s rated for the highest possible current. It has five pins, three for power and two for control. The charging station and the EV charger communicate over these two pins about the level of power available, among other things. A charging station won’t let the car draw more than the circuit it’s on can provide.
    * The cars and the grid are designed and managed by engineers, according to standards and codes. We don’t just let stuff blow up you know.
    * I’m a green Democratic ten-year Prius driver who a) loves cars and b) is eager for large-scale nuclear power to get us out of oil and coal. There are lots of pro-nuclear-power greens, such as the founder of Greenpeace and the author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Wind is real and good business too, just ask GE. Charging EVs at night is an ideal base load to use capacity installed to serve daytime needs.

  • avatar

    The current administration has invested a few billion dollars to increase the larger electrical grid by adding more high voltage power lines and towards a large transfer station (to be located near Clovis NM) that will use 1-million-volt DC lines (likely superconducting) to tie all three grids of the US together – the Northeast, West and Texas (yes, Texas has ITS OWN electrical grid). This would at least make power transfer more efficient between proposed wind farms in the Midwest and Texas and both coasts (which experience electrical demand time-shifted by 3 hours). The bigger stuff is on the way, but the neighborhood stuff will have to be handled by “smart grid” add-on transformers/metering ad the like that may have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    It’s only “news” when it happens to you. Do your lights flicker during hot summer days when everybody has the a/c cranking? That’s the future that awaits you when your neighbors roll up in their EV. The upside is that EVs will roll-out first in the Ecoweenie Coasts and Austin, TX. Here in a NYC suburb in New Jersey, where I can’t look out my window without seeing a Prius, I know it’ll be a race to the Chevy & Nissan stores on Route 22 for the ecoweenies. And next Summer, it’ll be brown-outs for all of us!

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    N-U-C-L-E-A-R and S-O-L-A-R, combined.  Along with NATURAL GAS and COAL…..with a sound, market-based energy investment policy, something ELSE this country has lacked over the past 25 years, we could become less energy dependent, safer and more productive.  The problem is that the Eco-terrorists just won’t LISTEN to reason.  Or compromise.  I hate those bastards.

  • avatar

    The sky is falling! Don’t go outside. Eco-terrorists and eco-weenies want your transformer to BLOW UP!
    This site gets dumber by the day……

  • avatar

    Even when you put the alternative energy (in this case, solar) in the middle of nowhere, there’s still someone to complain.

    “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.” – The Governator

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Power transformers don’t blow up.  They are fused just like every other piece of electrical equipement.  The fuse is located outside of the transformer, and when it trips under load, there is a momentary arc as the circuit breaks.  This looks spectacular, but is harmless.  As we speak (in the US at least), “smart grid” is being developed by electric companies and the US gov’t. (National Institute of Standards and Technology).  I’m on a committee working on an interoperability standard.  “Smart grid” is no more than a fancy grid management technique designed to make more efficient use of the grid and generating capacity, in the same way that, in the last 25 years, electronic engine management systems have made ICEs both more efficient and cleaner-burning.
    The more likely scenario is that, if everyone comes home on a hot summer evening in the northeast, and the a/c units are cranking, people are turning on electric stoves and ovens, turning on some lights and they’re hooking up their EVs to charging stations, there will be some load-shedding going on.  A smart grid will prioritize use, probably shedding load associated with re-charging EVs first.  Or maybe a particular homeowner can set his own priorities — i.e. shed load by cycling the a/c compressor, but keep charging the EV.  Brown-outs are just a crude example of load management.  The utility effects a voltage reduction, which reduces the total number of watts that are sucked up by most types of loads (i.e. a lightbulb or an electric resistance heater (like a stove or oven) doesn’t draw any more amps when the voltage is reduced; so its total wattage consumed falls when voltage falls.
    Psar’s statement about “private ownership” being responsible for reduced capital investment is just hippy-dippy bullshit reflecting a complete misunderstanding of how regulated electric utilities operate (at least in the US). For decades, electric utility rates were the sum of two elements: fuel cost for generation and a regulated “rate of return” on capital invested in plant and equipment that was supposed to reflect the utilities “cost of capital.”  Capital invested in Plant and equipment was called the “rate base,” and the allowed return was on that rate base.  So, the utility’s obvious incentive was to expand the rate base (to make more money), i.e.  increase investment in plant and equipment.  Indeed, one of the characteristics of all publicly-owned consumer utilities is under-investment in plant and infrastructure because they are more responsive to public demand for low rates, and increased investment necessarily drives up rates.
    With the jump in fuel prices associated with the first “Arab oil embargo” in 1973, two things happened:  (1) utilities, which had heretofore, assumed the risk of fuel price increases, got hammered because they couldn’t get rate increases fast enough to recover their increased fuel expenses (and rate increases are prospective) and (2) as a result, “fuel adjustment” charges were permitted by regulators, which shifted the risk of fuel price changes onto the ratepayers.  The effect of this was higher electric rates, which, of course, was politically unpopular.  Economists pointed out the inefficiencies of traditional rate regulation (which gave utilities an incentive to “over-invest” in plant and equipment to earn more money), so something new was created: rate caps.  A collection of economists and other smart people were brought in to create an idealized model of an electric utility and calculate what rates that utility would need to charge.  That became the rate cap.
    The result, of course, was to reduce the incentive to invest in new plant and equipment.
    The second, more recent (and more controversial) thing that happened was the “unbundling” of generation and distribution.  The theory was that one company would provide the distribution network (essentially a monopoly service, because parallel distribution networks are hugely inefficient) and another company would provide the electricity, at unregulated rates because — theoretically — ratepayers could shop for cheaper power by designating their supplier.  In practice, this did not work at all, mostly because the “market” for electricity is more complicated than the designers assumed.  The price of electricity is very much a function of demand, and demand fluctuates widely during the day and during the week.  So, the idea of Joe homeowner “shopping” for electricity by electing a supplier one time is pretty much of a joke.
    Pretty clearly, the widespread use of electric cars will require substantial investment in distribution and generating capacity, or people will have to adjust to being unable to draw all of the electricity they want at any time of day, any day of the week.  The more “load smoothing” is done by a smart grid, the more people will have to give up the ability to have all of the juice they want, whenever they want.
    But, I don’t see “exploding transformers” in the future.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the few comments that makes any sense. I used to work at an electric utility in the metering field and agree with you completely.
      The problem these days is that people seem to think that their areas of expertise extend beyond their actual capability to know or understand other fields of endeavor. They sure don’t know the subtle ins and outs, and often come to laughable conclusions.
      This article and most of the replies, while sincere, fall into this scenario.

  • avatar

    That California municipalities like Santa Barbara and Santa Monica would be early adopters of EVs makes perfect sense, but I’m scratching my head at the mention of Monrovia. It’s a pleasant enough suburb of LA, but why Monrovia?

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

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

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