Electrification 101: Getting the Grid Ready for an EV Revolution

Dec 7, 2023 10:00 AM ET
A row of semi trucks on a highway. Powerlines to the side and a scenic background.

This article, Electrification 101: Getting the Grid Ready for an EV Revolution, was provided by RMI and authored by Liza Martin, Caitlin Odom, and Matt Miccioli. FedEx provided a grant to RMI for the development, pilot and launch of the GridUp tool.

As more and more electric cars and trucks hit the road, utilities need to prepare the infrastructure to charge them. That’s where planning tools like GridUp come in.

In the United States, transportation emits more carbon dioxide than any other sector, with cars and trucks making up 81 percent of sector emissions in 2021. The good news? Breakthroughs in electric vehicle (EV) technology and a rapidly growing EV market have already positioned the transportation sector on an economic and climate-aligned path of electrification. Incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are accelerating EV adoption by removing cost barriers and economic bottlenecks. If the IRA clean vehicle credit is claimed in full, the total cost of ownership of an EV will be equal to or less than the cost of owning internal combustion engine vehicles by 2025 for passenger cars and by 2027 for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Beyond federal policies and programs, many states are signing on to the transportation electrification revolution. California is at the forefront with the Advanced Clean Cars II and the Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) regulations, which set air quality standards and zero-emission vehicle sales requirements for manufacturers. Since California passed these regulations, 17 other states have taken steps to sign on to similar commitments, further bolstering the support for transportation electrification.

The momentum doesn’t stop with state and federal policies. Large corporations, such as FedEx, Amazon, AT&T, and others have made commitments to electrify their fleets. This alignment of market forces, corporate commitments, and government regulations establishes a clear path for transportation electrification in the United States.

Planning for a New Kind of Growth

The charging infrastructure required to power these forthcoming vehicles is expected to create unprecedented surges in electric load growth, and today’s grid is not equipped to meet this demand for power. To fully enable the EV revolution and abate emissions from this sector, we need faster and smarter grid planning.

Preparing the grid to accommodate load growth and charging infrastructure is easier said than done — and it presents emergent challenges for utilities and grid operators. Today, utilities build infrastructure in response to service requests, and some incorporate larger system growth planning using modest load growth projections. However, electric load from EVs is projected to reach as much as 1,500 terawatt-hours (TWh) annually by 2050 — roughly equivalent to the electricity consumption from the entire US residential sector in 2018. Most utility load forecasts and infrastructure plans do not currently account for this load growth.

Further, the unique characteristics of EV charging, such as the large and instantaneous power demand, especially for fast chargers, differentiate the load growth associated with transportation electrification from other load growth that utilities know how to accommodate. Utilities are used to building reactively, rather than proactively. For example, when providing service to a new apartment building, utilities have ample time to plan while the building is being built, and the subsequent load can easily be predicted and managed. But a rapidly growing EV market creates an entirely new need to deliver large supplies of power where they have not historically been necessary — and on much shorter lead times.

The EVs with the highest power demands, medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks (or class 3-6 and class 7-8 vehicles, respectively) have especially unique geographic and time-bound load characteristics. These vehicles will need to charge either in rural areas along highways, which are often not equipped to provide power at this scale, or in dense areas such as ports or cities, where infrastructure capacities are already strained, and costs are much higher. Moreover, charging depots for a fleet of trucks or a fast-charging hub can be commissioned for a logistics company in a few months, but connecting such a depot to utility service currently takes around five years.

To keep pace with accelerating EV adoption, utilities need to act quickly to prepare the grid for this new type of load. But traditional utility business models and regulations, which are well suited to reactive planning for new loads such as new apartment buildings, don’t currently allow for the proactive grid investments that EVs demand. The current lack of certainty regarding the specific charging needs EVs will have — when, where, how much — contrasts sharply with regulatory requirements for the prudency of investments, which are intended to keep ratepayer costs down. Utilities need assurance that if they build, the load will come — which requires knowing exactly where and when charging needs will arise.

Enter GridUp

In the near future, RMI’s GridUp tool will inform proactive grid infrastructure planning. The tool helps utilities and other stakeholders determine when, where, and in what quantities energy and power demands will materialize from vehicle electrification. To that end, GridUp will provide publicly-available data and insights on power and energy demand projections from transportation electrification. Decisionmakers can use GridUp to understand how oncoming EV load will fit into the existing demands on the grid and how to prepare accordingly while ensuring that grid planning accurately reflects the needs of all transportation customers. Utilities, fleet owners, policymakers, regulators, and others will be able to use this publicly available tool to proactively plan out the electricity grid that will power both today’s and tomorrow’s EVs.

GridUp will be complemented by a suite of additional solutions to prepare grid infrastructure for oncoming vehicle electrification. In this article series, we will explore an electrified future where grid planners can leverage vehicle-to-grid charging and demand response to allow EVs to support the grid even as load continues to grow. Regulatory incentives can further ensure utilities leverage available tools like GridUp to expand their load forecasting and streamline service connection processes with the goal of ensuring that the transportation sector can electrify at the pace needed to meet climate goals. As the EV revolution kicks into gear, it’s critical that utilities, regulators, policymakers, and fleet operators work together to ensure that grid infrastructure constraints don’t leave EVs unchargeable.