Widespread electrified transport is coming fast— Are we ready?

Contributed by Neha Palmer, CEO of TeraWatt Infrastructure

Electrified transport is about to come in a tidal wave to North America.  As the rate of adoption of personal electric vehicles (EV) accelerates, the electrification of commercial electric fleets of medium- to heavy-duty vehicles is quickly following suit. Corporate sustainability goals, ESG investments, and government policy play a big part in this. Another big reason for the increased demand is that electric vehicles will have a lower total cost of ownership, giving fleet owners and operators a bottom-line business incentive to increment and then convert fleets to electric. But a glaring problem remains: how are we going to power all these fleets?

Consider that while 50 individual passenger vehicles require about 360kW of demand to charge (the equivalent to powering 410 homes in a month), the peak electricity demand to power 50 Class 8 trucks in one place is closer to 9MW of demand —  the same amount of power the Empire State Building uses and 25 times the amount of passenger vehicles.

Electricity load growth at locations where concentrated EV charging will occur will stress local grid infrastructure, and the pace at which this electric charging infrastructure is being developed lags behind the rate of adoption of electrified fleets. According to recent estimates, the electrification of transportation and other sectors will require a doubling of U.S. generation capacity by 2050. These new generation sources will need to be matched with additional grid capacity to interconnect new large sources of electricity consumption in the particular locations it is demanded.

NREL researchers work on the Consolidated Utility Base Energy (CUBE) System in the Power Systems Integration Laboratory (PSIL) at the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at NREL. CUBE is an integrated power electronic platform for PV-Battery-Diesel hybrid power systems, developed for the U.S. Army Mobile Electric Power (MEP) to provide power to Forward Operating Bases. (Upsplash)

Long lead times for major electric grid update projects, measured in years, further complicate the ability to meet the ballooning energy demand from EVs. The bottom line is that if almost every trucking company has plans to electrify in the next few decades, the infrastructure to charge those trucks needs to be in development now.

In order to meet this challenge, all stakeholders must play a part in accelerating various solutions simultaneously. This isn’t the first time that the grid has had to quickly react to the addition of large, concentrated loads. As large data centers were developed around the country to meet computing demand, utilities and regulators were forced to scale additional generation resources, such as renewables, and streamline processes for bringing those loads online.  Electric vehicle charging will be similar, but the number of large-scale charging locations will be significantly more than the number of data centers we’ve needed, and they will be demanded in a much shorter timeframe. We need utilities and grid owners to start shoring up the grid for the new demand, and a big part of this comes down to targeting current policies to meet that goal.

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(Wolfgang Hasselmann/Upsplash)

In addition, on-site electricity generation, storage, and demand-side management will be required to meet the massive increase in electricity demand caused by commercial fleet electrification. Current utility regulations governing grid interconnection to these distributed energy resources (DERs) systems are often static and limiting, with long and uncertain lead times to be able to interconnect to the grid. Given the capabilities of DERs to adjust load up and down, and to provide power back to the grid in times of high demand, the interconnection rules should be much more flexible. There has been some progress here, but the application of new rules is uneven, with each utility creating its own guidelines.  In order for the electrification of transport to be successful, policies must take into account the technology we now have at our fingertips, and utilities must arrive at a faster, easier interconnection process for charging infrastructure.

Innovation will also have to play a role in meeting the pent-up demand for these services. Whether it’s through highly reliable microgrids or more dynamic assessment of grid capacity (which allows higher loads with less investment), we need to converge all of these trends to meet the speed of this transformation. The capacity required for these facilities will not be met with the traditional “plug vehicle directly into grid” model we are currently using.

The task before us is daunting, but not impossible.  There are many parallels to the massive rollout of data centers over the last decade — an increase in required energy infrastructure, a focus on clean energy, and the race to move quickly that’s countered by a slower-moving energy industry, grid owners, and regulators. The one big difference is the pace of change. While the number of EV fleets operating today may be nascent, the demand is coming like an (electrified) freight train (or truck as it were). All stakeholders need to collectively move faster than ever to meet it.

About the author:

Neha Palmer is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Terawatt Infrastructure. She has over two decades of leadership experience in the energy industry.  Most recently, she led energy strategy for Google’s global data centers.