Some functions of government are frivolous, such as a $3 million study of hamster fights. Others are fundamental, like keeping on the lights. As President Biden promotes a rapid transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as part of his plans for a cleaner economy, he must remain extremely vigilant to ensure the nation doesn’t run out of juice. A shortage of energy is more than an inconvenience.
Texas has suffered under a blanket of snow and ice in recent days that has left more than 4 million residents shivering in the dark. Arctic-like conditions froze wind turbines and natural gas infrastructure, while record power demand triggered rolling blackouts. The price of electricity temporarily surged above $9,000 per megawatt-hour, a spike equivalent to boosting a routine $18 Tesla charge to $900. The Lone Star State, the nation’s most energy-abundant, is not alone in the energy gap: California’s infamous summer power shortages have become routine.
Electric utilities have both excess capacity and procedures for shifting power to satisfy extreme demand. It is smart to expect the unexpected, of course, and wiser still to prepare for what is clearly coming down the road: millions of plug-in vehicles that will suck their electric fuel from the same power sources already vulnerable to crushing demand.
Since taking office, Mr. Biden has announced plans to replace the nation’s fleet of nearly 650,000 vehicles with all-electric models. General Motors recently vowed to quit building internal-combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 and switch to battery-electric models, and almost all major auto manufacturers have similar plans to transition to electric. Currently, EVs comprise only about 1% of the U.S. vehicle fleet.
A study by the University of Texas in 2018, prior to the wholesale embrace of EVs, found that if the personal cars of Texans went all-electric and most charging was done during off-peak hours, the electric grid could handle the extra load. If cars were charged during peak hours, though, the supply would fall far short of demand. A study of California’s EV projections produced a similar shortage.
The implication is that the nation’s power grid might not hold up to a rapid transition to electrified transportation. “If every American switched over to an electric passenger vehicle, analysts have estimated, the United States could end up using roughly 25 percent more electricity than it does today,” wrote The New York Times following the GM announcement.
Will America be prepared to handle the extra load? Mr. Biden appears untroubled by doubts, as does the U.S. agency tasked with peering into the nation’s future energy needs. In its Annual Energy Outlook 2021 published earlier this month, the U.S. Energy Information Agency writes: “Current laws and regulations are not projected to induce much market growth, despite continuing improvements in electric vehicles (EVs) through evolutionary market developments.”
By all appearances, electric vehicles are speeding toward a massive U.S. presence. When weather extremes like the Texas freeze inevitably occur, Americans might face a conundrum: whether to keep the lights on or the wheels turning.
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