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Is the grid ready for electric vehicles?

Posted on 22 April 2019 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Jan Ellen Spiegel

Some Americans appear increasingly ready to give up their gas cars for electric vehicles. But are the country’s electric grids prepared for them?

The question is a critical one in the quest to address climate change, because transportation is now the single largest sector contributing to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. EVs are widely viewed as a key way to help change that.

“The broad answer is actually yes, the grid can handle the introduction of large amounts of EVs,” said Matt Stanberry, vice president of Advanced Energy Economy, a business association dedicated to development of clean and affordable global energy systems. “The capability is there,” Stanberry said. “The question is how do you get there.”

Stanberry, along with others looking at the issue, believes what’s needed is not more power, it’s more efficiently and strategically provided power.

“Cars sit around 20, 21 hours a day. There’s plenty of time to charge – so quite a bit of flexibility,” said Dan Bowermaster, program manager for electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent non-profit center for public interest energy and environmental research, which has been looking at grid readiness for EVs.

But he said with new technology coming, such as storage and the ability to use a vehicle’s battery to power a home or to provide extra power to the grid, “Now is the time for everyone to prepare.”

What to think about

Ideally, people would charge their cars when the grid isn’t jammed with activity or when there’s extra power available. That would be in the middle of day in the sunny West when solar power is peaking. In windy areas like Texas, it’s nighttime. In the Northeast, it’s overnight when there’s less power usage. Utilities think they can influence people’s charging behavior by making it more advantageous to charge during those times.

Even before EV use becomes widespread, there are a lot of factors utilities have to think about as they gauge future power needs. Most critically, neighborhood circuits and transmission lines will need substantial changes. For instance, gas stations and highway rest stops one day may be filled with charging stations. That would not only put pressure on the grid, but also do it in concentrations and locations that are different from those that exist now.

With the potential for EVs to become power sources for homes and for emergency back-up power after disasters, utilities will also have to start planning for power to be able to flow in two directions. And they may need figure out how to hook it all to rooftop solar and energy storage.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin also point out in a recent report that a low-population state like Maine may need more power to support EVs than you’d think.

“There may not be very many people,” said Todd Davidson, a research associate at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas and co-author on the report. “But on a per capita basis, people in Maine actually are consuming quite a bit of gasoline. If you convert all that gasoline to electricity, then on a per capita basis, your electricity consumption is going to go up a lot.”

These are the considerations the independent system operator that runs the six-state New England grid, ISO-NE, is already thinking about.

There are a lot of variables to consider, said Stephen Rourke, ISO-NE’s vice president for system planning. Where are the EVs going to be – in hubs around the region’s cities? Evenly spread out?

Then there’s how to merge EV deployment with renewable energy.

“We’re really going to have to think about the implications,” he said pointing out that solar power can alter the time of day when the grid has the most excess power. “Then you pile a bunch of EVs on top of that. Just what does that mean?”

What’s happening now

Utilities scattered around the nation have begun pilot and demonstration projects largely focused on changing people’s behavior so they don’t plug in their cars at what is generally peak electric usage time.

Con Edison – the iconic utility that serves New York City and some of its suburbs – is already past the pilot stage for its incentive-driven charging program. Begun in April 2017 as a 100-car pilot, it went full scale that July and now includes about 1,000 private vehicles, plus about 750 fleet vehicles in New York City.

The goal is to get people with EVs to charge them between midnight and 8 a.m., the lowest electricity usage period in Con Ed’s system.

Working with an outside technology vendor, Con Ed provides participants with a connector that collects charging data.

Incentives come as e-gift cards from Amazon and others. Participants get cards worth $150 to $200 just for signing up. For every month they keep the device installed and charge at least once in Con Ed territory, they earn $5, plus an additional 10 cents for every kilowatt-hour they charge between midnight and 8 a.m. And during summertime, when air conditioners are often sucking up electricity, participants can earn another $20 if they don’t charge between 2 and 6 p.m.

Sherry Login, EVs programs manager at Con Ed, estimates someone who drives about 10,000 miles a year and only charges between midnight and 8 a.m. could earn $500 a year, not including the up-front payment.

The point for Con Ed is to manage its electric load so it doesn’t need to add additional power stations. “This is why we’re getting ahead of this,” she said. “We don’t want to be caught off-guard in a few years when all the manufacturers are coming in with plug-in electric versions of all their vehicles.”

Con Ed also is running a vehicle-to-grid pilot with White Plains in its suburban service area. The school district has purchased five electric buses. During the summer when they are idle, Con Ed will use their batteries to supply about 75 kilowatts to the grid. The first test will be this summer.

Southern California Edison, which operates in the San Diego area, is taking a different approach. Faced with about 150,000 EVs – up from about 20,000 in 2013 – and loads of excess power in the middle of the day due to output from solar systems, it’s focusing on ways to get people to charge away from home during the day. It’s working with signals sent directly to the EV or charger to ramp charging up or down.

In Massachusetts, the utility Eversource, which operates in three New England states, has already run a six-month pilot that provided home charger rebates to about 100 customers. In return, Eversource controlled charging times. Customers could override, but most didn’t, said Charlotte Ancel, Eversource’s director of energy strategy and policy.

“The pilot has the promise that people will just plug it in and forget about it,” Ancel said.

The goal in Massachusetts is to increase EV use – which quadrupled last year alone – without increasing peak demand, said Judith Judson, the state’s Department of Energy Resources commissioner.

So at the same time the state is promoting EVs, it’s putting in place new plans for energy efficiency, energy storage and additional renewable energy. “It really requires a combination of policies,” Judson said.

“We have a lot of capability to utilize our existing networks and then combine them with innovative new technologies as well as a real focus on efficiency,” she said. “It really does enable us to integrate many, many more electric vehicles into our system.”

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. All well and good, but electric cars only make sense if the electricty is generated by renewable energy, so this is going to have to be expanded fairly quickly.

    Electric cars seem like the way of the future to me, in most cases anyway, but how do you charge electric cars in the middle of the day when most people are at work? This will require complicated systems. Perhaps places where charging is best in the middle of the day might suit hydrogen fuel cell cars.

    "Green" hydrogen produced by electrolysis driven by renewable electricity has also been proposed as a fuel for various applications, including providing peak electricty supply (typically currently provided by natural gas etc). Ie the hydrogen is effectively acting as a storage medium for use at the right time. Articlehere.

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  2. Charging your EV will become as familiar as charging your phone or iPad, mostly done at home, work or wherever your vehicle remains stationary for a sufficient period. One thing for certain is that the current service station will not have a future and those who retain legacy internal combustion vehicles will find it increasingly difficult to obtain their fuel as volumes decrease. Yes the Grid will be the critical element in the transition.

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  3. nigelj @ 1

    Every one has to park their car, at work, at home, shopping etc.

    So every parking space is a potential location to have charging technology.
    That can be via induction or direct cable connection. You would just present your charging card and it will bill you electronically.
    Some locations may be difficult, but there are already solutions for the majority.

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  4. No definitive or qualified answer to the question posed in the title. The upshot seems to be that on balance a lot of adaptation will have to occur to the current electrical grid but with planning, incentives, and thoughtful application of forward-looking policies, the impact will be smaller than detractors might claim.

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  5. As the article mentions, part of the solution is to induce people to charge their cars when excess power is available.  This is good for the generation companies as well.  For instance, they can reduce the amount of water flowing over the spillway and run it through the generators, making more money from their facility.  The key is smart grids.  not the pitiful ones we have now designed to eliminate meter readings but really smart grids in which the price of 'optional' electricity continually varies according to how much excessis available.  This doesn't apply to power on demand (your house lights for instance) but only for devices such as your hot water cylinder and your wall battery or car battery.  This demand balancing rather than the predominant supply balancing we have at present is good for the customer and for the electric companies.  You dial the amount you are prepared to pay for electricity and if the price falls to that level, you charge your battery.

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  6. Toys and other gadgets have battery compartments that can hold standard size batteries, like e g AA cells. So I had this fantasy: The battery in my EV is drying up so when I happen to drive by the (future) service station I drive in for a battery replacement. I stop, go out of my EV, open the hatch in the side of the car, pull out the empty battery (with a lifting device because it's heavy), put the empty battery in the rack for empty batteries, fetch a recharged battery from a rack of recharged batteries, shove it into my car (all this of course with the help of the lifting device), close the hatch, pay for difference in energy between the batteries (because maybe my old battery was not totally empty) and drive off. If I hurry a lot I could reload my car in about 40 seconds. Instead of "fast" charging it in thirty minutes or slow charging it in 5 hours. But exactly nobody (that's right, I am a nobody) proposes this technical solution. So can someone explain to me why this is such a very bad idea? My very bad idea also includes that if you really want to slow charge you car at home or at work you can have it both ways. And of course it also includes that the service stations are optimised to recharge batteries in a cost-effective way that is good for the grid.

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  7. Replacement batteries sound interesting, but firstly the batteries are heavy so are positioned low down in the floor pan towards the centre of the car for good weight distribution and not taking up boot space, and this makes them rather inconvenient to easily remove. Secondly, recharging stations would need a large range of different replacement batteries because of the wide range on the market and this would be challenging to accommodate.

    There are probably solutions to all this like standardised batteries, but by the time some plan is developed recharging times will probably be down around 10 minutes, making the replacement idea redundant. But who knows, its all one possible idea I'm not rubbishing it.

    This will be one to watch. Lexus are planning an electric vehiclehere.

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  8. @nigelj #7: already there. 

    Semi-automtic battery replacement on city buses

    battery swap system for scooters.

    As far as I know the automobile industry is working on a standard replacement battery. As Tesla is the largest -western- perhpas their system can become a de-facto standard. 

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  9. Seems like EV and renewable energy are a perfect example of the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome. To build more renewable energy generation we need storage. For EVs to make sense we need more renewable energy generation. We charge at night for 7.5 cents/kwh, and I've seen some programs drop that to 4.5 cents/kwh. No doubt those rates will evolve as more EVs plug in at night, but it seems like a perfect marriage between EVs and renewable energy, because EVs can charge when the power is available, hence a great match to the variability of renewable energy.

    No, I'm not saying anything new nor am I saying anything that the readers here don't already know. Just bringing it back into the conversation. But I don't expect hot-swappable batteries to appear anytime soon. Lots of logisic issues associated with that.

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  10. @Ignorant Guy
    I have read about battery replacement numerous times. Besides the difficulties mentioned by @7-8, the battery is a significant part of the price for the whole car, and the longevity of the battery is affected by age, temperatures, and how you treat/charge them. They are therefore not fungible like current or gasoline. To get beyond this, you would need to purchase the car plus a battery plan which discounts for deterioration in the battery + maltreatment. Things get complicated because poor treatment occurs more often if it is not your own property. So it's not as straightforward as it seems at first blush, but it is an obvious 'solution' to charging time.

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  11. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t know many people that get gas every time they go from home to work. My wife is close to replacing her car and we will definitely buy an electric vehicle. She drives 26 miles to work so a day’s driving will be about 25% of the charge at most. That can be charged in about 2 hours even if on just a 120v outlet.

    With all the European countries that are going to ban the sale of gasoline powered cars or actually forbid there use in the country, it’s going to be like going from horse and buggy to autos on steroids. US car manufactures cannot afford to lose the European market so they are going to have to change. And we are seeing that happen.

    As for electricity being generated by renewable energy, we built our house about 14 years ago and had foam insulation throughout the exterior walls and rafters. It does a pretty amazing job of keeping the house draft free and noiseless. But with 3000 sq ft our electric bill averaged a little more than $300/month. We had been talking about solar panels for some time and about 18 months ago we decided to install them and make some other changes to reduce that bill since I’m close to retiring. We installed 10 kW solar panels, replaced the seer 10 outside A/C unit with a 16 seer unit, changed every light to LED, and installed a door between the downstairs and the upstairs. Our bill now averages $120/month. And $16 of that is for the special meter they installed for the solar panels. I did not expect it to drop that much so we were very pleased. The total cost was about $25,000. That’s about a 10 year payback even if the rate doesn’t increase, which it has been for the last few years.

    I said that to point out that it seems for those that can’t afford the upfront costs that electric companies or the government could have solar installed on houses and the owners use the savings to pay back the costs. Then power companies would not have to build new power plants, it would smooth out the peak usage problem, and people could charge their cars with renewable energy. Just my thoughts.

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  12. Hyundai introduces solar roof technology. "The first-generation system for hybrids features a structure of silicon solar panels integrated into a standard car roof that is capable of charging 30 to 60 per cent of the battery over the course of a normal day, depending on weather conditions and other environmental factors."

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  13. nigelj @ 12 I have been following that technology and was wondering if they could be placed on the hood and trunk lids also.

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  14. @Hank @ 13: Not soon, the hood and trunck are not parts of the chasis. For carrying the cells the structure of the hood and trunk should be enforced, guess. Perhaps with "robo heavy hinges and flexible power cables. Cost for such extensions would be not worth the power generated. Windows could be covered with thin film. But there are some safety issues I guess. Perhaps when RoboTaxi is there.

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  15. Hank @13,  car bonnet covered in solar panels has been done in photo here. However it's a prototype, so no doubt specially reinforced and expensive like Ger says. Not pretty either, but early days yet.

    An acquaintaince of mine has a solar panel powered house with a tesla battery pack, which has allowed him to go about 90% off grid. His house is passive solar design so built with good insulation, and to maximise heat gain in winter with big windows and the floor as a heat sink, and solar curtains in summer to refelect as much heat as possible. External shutters would be better.

    The panels and battery are an expensive up front investment, with break even in 15 years from memory. I guess government subsidies would help.

    However the panels and batteries are not hugely expensive to my way of thinking. Together they are about the cost of 15sq metres of floor area in New Zealand.

    However it's not clear to me which is better: Centralised solar plant or residential roof top solar. I haven't been able to find any clear article or research, and its not clear which governments should promote the most. Does anyone know?

    Of course being independent off grid is a nice feeling, and you have no more power bills, or minimal power bills. Residential solar power does clearly suit rural communities especially in poor, rural based  countries where its not easy to supply such communities from a centralised power station.

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  16. nigelj @ 15 our solar panels were $30k but got a $10k tax deduction so effectively we paid $20k. We looked at solar panels for a long time and kept seeing the price was dropping every year. But last year we decided it was a good enough payback period to go ahead and purchase. Like I said it truned out much better than we expected.

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  17. 11: "Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t know many people that get gas every time they go from home to work. "

    No, and the reason is that gasoline is an energy dense fuel for motor vehicles, so a full tank will last a while. With my car, I can go in excess of 500 miles from one full tank, equivalent to two return visits to distant family or five weeks of commuting. I know of no electric car that comes close to this, at least without costing as much as a cheap house.

    One comment I have heard from doubters of electric vehicles is that if they became widespread in the UK, the government would lose a lot of tax revenue through fuel tax (which is high in the UK), how would they compensate for this deficit?

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  18. alea@17,

    The Tesla Roadster has a 1000 km range. But it is the pricy Tesla (but not as pricy as other high end sports cars ... so maybe every owner of a high sports car (priced at or higher than the Tesla Roadster) who doesn't also own a Tesla Roadster should be heavily taxed for their incompetence as a leader of society.

    The more affordable Tesla Model 3 and soon to be available Model Y have ranges near 500 km. On a long road trip that means planning to stop for coffee and maybe a snack or meal while a 30 to 45 minute recharge is completed (30 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station provides another 270 km of range).

    And many other electric cars have ranges beyond 300 km that make long distance travel practical with reasonably frequent rest stops (which every driver should be taking). However, many of those cars are not built to be recharged as rapidly as Tesla Superstation recharging.

    Canada's NRC has developed a handy resource for learning about the energy efficiency of every type of vehicle available to Canadian buyers - NRC Fuel Consumption Ratings Search.

    As for the end of revenue from a fuel tax, the revenue from the much larger Carbon Pricing that will be applied to help achieve the required rapid corrrection will also end. Smart sensible leaders would already be working on the transition, rather than trying to figure out how to be popular by making up excuses for making bigger problems for future leaders.

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  19. alea @ 17

    "With my car, I can go in excess of 500 miles from one full tank, equivalent to two return visits to distant family or five weeks of commuting. I know of no electric car that comes close to this, at least without costing as much as a cheap house."

    How often do yo need that? I would say it would be rare for most people, because most long trips have petrol stations along the way. By analogy its like saying my Ferrari can go 300 kms hour. People seldom use that ability.

    Owners of electric cars could hire a hybrid or petrol car for the occasional long trip that doesn't have recharging stations along the route. Range of the latest electric vehicles is also pretty good, even for the cheaper ones.

    "One comment I have heard from doubters of electric vehicles is that if they became widespread in the UK, the government would lose a lot of tax revenue through fuel tax (which is high in the UK), how would they compensate for this deficit?'

    The government could put a road user tax on electric vehicles based on distance. You pay it when you pay for a warrent of fitness.  There would be other ways as well. It's a non issue, and only becomes significant when uptake of electric cars becomes substantial.

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  20. Personal experience follows.

    I have a plug-in hybrid (Chevy Volt, unfortunately discontinued, due to cancellation of the Cruze base vehicle), which I chose over then-available pure electrics due to frequent 400km trips visiting family. If I didn't have a frequent 100km round trip for work we would only need gas once a month.

    Plugging it in weeknights, and about once a weekend, has just become a habit, very easy to do, and this particular vehicle doesn't tax our electrical supply (240V 16A). If we were fully charging a couple of vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, which draw 30A apiece, it would be more of an issue - our older house supply is limited to 160A, more modern houses in the US are generally capable of around 200A max. That's a significant infrastructure limit. 

    Not cheap, though. Numbers: if we limited ourselves to 120V, we could just run an extension cord and use the cars charger, but our 18KWh battery (~90km on electric alone) takes 13 hours to charge at 12A. That's not a feasible charging rate for a full electric car with a larger range. We installed a 240V charger, which ran ~$500 for a 40A capability (for future use), and another ~$1K to run a pair of 50A lines to a post next to the driveway. Not everyone can afford that. And if you live in an apartment complex it falls to the landlord to set that up, to absorb the cost. 

    There are going to have to be some adjustments along the way. 

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  21. alea @17: "One comment I have heard from doubters of electric vehicles is that if they became widespread in the UK, the government would lose a lot of tax revenue through fuel tax (which is high in the UK), how would they compensate for this deficit?"

    I touched on this in this comment to my post about my personal EV experience. Here in the US many states require EV owners to pay an extra yearly fee/tax which is supposed to offset the fuel taxes not paid. Here in Missouri the yearly fee is $75. I calculated that if I were driving a gas car the same number of miles as my EV, then I would only be paying about $49/year in fuel taxes to Missouri and $52/year to the Federal gov't. So Missouri is actually getting more money from me, but the Feds are out of luck. If/when(?) our Federal gov't ever rises to the level of basic competence again(?), then perhaps they will come up with some logical way to raise taxes for highway maintenance from EV owners.

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  22. alea @ 17 "No, and the reason is that gasoline is an energy dense fuel for motor vehicles, so a full tank will last a while." I understand that gasoline powered cars can go further than electric cars at this time. But that doesn't change the point I was making. As long as the storage capacity of electric cars is more than a round trip to work there is no necessity for charging the battery at work. And electric cars easily have that storage capacity for a large majority of American workers.  

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