November 22, 2010

Electric cars = Brownouts?

CARS - The first mass-market electric cars go on sale in December 2010, but will the electricity grid be able to take the extra stress? Will cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt be a boon or a burden?

When you plug in an electric car (like the Tesla Roadster on the right) you draw electricity from the grid, made from a variety of sources like nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and of course... coal.

At present coal isn't a very smart way of fueling cars. It just isn't practical to replace one source of carbon emissions (gasoline or diesel) with another source like coal.

But coal is the cheapest source of electricity.

A single electric car can draw as much power as a small house and when electric cars are being purchased by consumers the surge in demand result in brownouts where some locations just don't have enough electricity to spread around.

Utilities in parts of California, Texas and North Carolina are scrambling to upgrade transformers and other equipment in neighborhoods where the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are expected to be in high demand.

The last time there was a sudden electricity demand like this was air conditioners during the 1950s and 1960s. So there will be problems...

But there is a silver lining... In 2009, Americans alone spent $325 billion on gasoline, and utilities would love even a small piece of that market. Especially green utility companies like Bull Frog Power which specializes in delivery 100% green electricity and invests heavily in solar and wind projects.

After all what is the point of having an electric car if the electricity being used to recharge the batteries isn't green too? Electric cars produce no emissions themselves, but the electricity they are charged with is made mostly from fossil fuels like coal. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council electric cars produce 66% less greenhouse gas emissions, on average, than a similarly sized car that runs on gasoline.


Limited Range: Most electric cars have a limit on their range and would have to be recharged either at home or at gas station with the proper equipment (and usually it takes awhile). In theory if you owned your own business you could have charge it up at work too. Eventually a network of charging stations will be made and parking lots will offer electricity charging as part of their services.

High Cost: Electric cars already cost more than gasoline cars, that is to be expected. Their primary goal is to "save the environment", but their secondary goal is to save money by no longer needing to buy gasoline. In the beginning using electric cars should be cheaper than gasoline, but what happens when higher demand causes electricity rates to skyrocket?

Driving 10,000 miles on electricity will use about 2,500 kilowatt-hours, or 20% more than the average annual consumption of U.S. homes. At an average utility rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s $275 for a year of fuel, equivalent to about 70 cents per gallon of gasoline (or 17.5 cents per litre).

Thus even if electricity rates were 55 cents per kWh you'd still be spending less on fuel than a gasoline driver. (Yesterday the price of gasoline was $1.09 / litre in Toronto.)

If you calculate how much you drive in a year you might find you have significant savings. Indeed the more you drive, the more you save in comparison to driving the same distance on gasoline.

Clustering: Utilities have more than enough power plants and equipment to power hundreds of thousands of electric cars. The problem is when lots of homeowners in one neighbourhood all buy electric cars. The phenomenon is called “clustering” because it can create local shortages and brownouts.

Electric vehicle clusters are expected in neighborhoods where:

High-income and environmentally conscious commuters live.

Generous subsidies are offered by states and localities.

Weather is mild, because batteries tend to perform better in warmer climates.


Automotive executives say it’s inevitable that utilities will experience some difficulties early on, both with the demand on their supply and also keeping their customers happy.

An estimated 30,000 Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts are expected to be sold in 2011. Over the next two years Ford, Toyota and EVERY other major automaker also plans to offer electric cars as part of their new line up. (Its like the hybrids all over again...)

So in theory electric cars will be here to stay, which will make gasoline drivers happy because gasoline prices should hopefully stay stable. (Although that isn't likely, due to the high demand in China and India.)

Of course the real future is in Hydrogen Power, but the utility system and distribution network for hydrogen will need to be upgraded significantly first. Hydrogen-powered cars is really in its infancy while electric cars are toddlers in contrast. But the beauty of it is that by creating an infrastructure for electric cars it will also create a lot of the infrastructure that will later be needed for hydrogen cars (which uses electrolysis and salt water to collect hydrogen).

Governments are promoting the technology as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. The U.S. Congress is offering electric car buyers a $7,500 tax credit and some states and cities provide additional subsidies that can total $8,000. The Nissan Leaf sells for $33,000 and the Chevy Volt sells for $41,000.

Some states are going to be very aggressive about promoting electric cars. California has set a goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2020 and thus will likely have a lot more subsidies in the future.

A million electric cars = A lot of electricity being sucked out of the grid, how big the drain will be depends on the size of the battery in the car, how fast the car is charged and the duration/range the car is capable of.

From a standard 120-volt socket an electric car draws 1,500 watts. By comparison, a medium-sized air conditioner or a countertop microwave that is in use draws about 1,000 watts.

The car can be charged faster however when plugged into a home charging station. The first Leafs and Volts can draw 3,300 watts, and both carmakers have plans to boost that to 6,600 watts. The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car with a huge battery, can draw 16,800 watts.

A modest home in the San Francisco Bay area (without air conditioning) uses 3,000 watts at most. Thus various neighbourhoods will need upgrades to the neighborhood transformer when the usage from single homes suddenly skyrockets from 3,000 to 6,000+ or even 20,000.

Replacing a neighborhood transformer costs a utility between $7,000 and $9,000, according to SoCal Edison. Fortunately this is work a utility will often want to do, but it often requires government approval.

Utility executives hope the popularity of electric cars will grow as the vehicles’ costs come down and as public charging stations are made available at malls and along highways. They know there will be problems with blown fuses and fried transformers, but they also know its a huge market that will pour lots of extra cash into the system and allow them to spend more on solar and wind projects.

Why? Because everyone wants to go green, its just a matter of getting there.

See Also
Can Electric Cars be Sexy?
Mitsubishi Electric Car
Car Sharing is the Future
Green Cars in 2020
Converting Hybrids into Electrics
The Eco-Car Battleground
Hydrogen Power

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