Scare Tactic

By Bill Moore

Posted: 03 May 2011

"If it bleeds, it leads," goes the old saw about selling newspapers. Death, destruction, mayhem, scandal: that's what sells newspapers and media ratings from cable television to tabloid news.

So, if you want to sell a $3,500 report to people, you start by scaring the hell out of them with a headline that essentially states, electric cars will threaten the very stability of the power grid by causing energy usage to rise 1,700 percent.

That's the headline for UTC's "Gearing Up for Electric Vehicles: Tackling the EV Challenges to the Smart Grid" report, which the group is selling for up to $3,499 a copy to non-members.

Obviously, at that price most of us aren't going to know what's in it, but we can probably make a few educated guesses, starting with the assumption that the 2.6 million EVs in America by 2020 are all going to be plugged in at 5 pm on a hot and sultry afternoon, and that a majority of those people never bothered to set their electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE or charging station) for delayed, off-peak charging after 11pm. In unison from Boston to Miami, millions of EV owners shove the connector into their car's charge port, and milliseconds later, the surge in demand causes substations to overload, circuits to trip, generators to off-line, and moments later the entire east coast goes dark.

This assumes, of course, that none of the utilities implemented off-peak power rates and worked with customers to educate them on financial benefits of doing so. None of the EVSE installers instructed their customers how to set their units for delayed charging. None of the dealers, Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan took the time to explain how to set the car up to charge overnight. And worst of all, everyone of those EV owners are stupid spendthrifts who haven't a clue about how the grid works and how much power their vehicle's consume and what it costs. That really is scary, if true.

So, let's look at what I assume the report is warning.

(1) 1,700 percent increase in electric power usage. That's probably a reasonable assumption since EV drivers will be shifting from petroleum to electric power. Recall that a gallon of gasoline is equivalent to approximately 33 kWh of electric power; and that's equivalent to about 100 miles of commuting distance in an EV. Assuming the daily roundtrip commute of 30 miles, that means that the average two-income household commuting a combined distance of 60 miles a day, will consume in gasoline the equivalent of 22kWh of electricity. That's about what the average American home uses in a day. So, add two EVs -- say a Nissan Leaf for Dad and a Volt for Mom -- and you've added the equivalent of another home on the block.

(2) "61-fold annual reduction in CO2 emission reductions." Now this one confuses me a bit. Are they saying that those 2.6 million EVs will result in 61 times less CO2 or 61 times less reduction in CO2? I assume they are referring to the former because their press release says it will result in "almost 2.6 million tons in emissions reductions that year." Yet, it seems to me that they are actually arguing for the latter. If electricity demand shoots up 1,700 percent, that means we have to run existing plants (50% of them coal fired, 20% natural gas) at full bore, as well as building many more peaking plants to handle the potential 5 PM plug-in surge, and that will increase CO2 emissions 61-fold.

Or it could be a clerical typo.

My guess is these guys are laying out the very worst possible case scenario: (1) to sell their report; and (2) to get people to attend their conference in Long Beach next week. Certainly, the perfect storm of temperature (Mother nature helped by global warming), ignorance (EV owners) and apathy (utilities) could conspire to crash the grid some hot summer day in the 2020s, but I doubt it. Here's why.

(1) We're talking about it and planning for it. The very fact that UTC, a relative late comer to a long understood issue, is hyping this problem to sell reports and conference tickets, means critical sectors of the grid are waking up to the problem, eight years ahead of it. Of course, we can ask whether or not that's enough time to begin preparations. On the infrastructure side, perhaps not, but on the public awareness side, certainly.

(2) If EV ownership in California is any model, you could expect a lot of those 2.6 million EVs in 2020 will be offset by small residential rooftop solar PV systems. Already, companies in the PV business are looking at this as an opportunity to sell more systems. I had a conversation with Patrick Duan with BYD at the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting here in Omaha last weekend about the feasibility of BYD selling electric car/solar PV packages. The Chinese company already builds the car, the batteries, the charging station, and the panels. Buy an e6 and get a 4kW system installed to charge it; DC-to-DC directly. The car is set up for that right now.

(Interestingly, the French oil company Total, just took a significant financial stake in SunPower, a solar PV manufacturer).

(3) Utilities are keenly aware that it will be much cheaper to educate their customers -- and financially incentivize them -- on the benefits (and necessity) of charging overnight. Charge during the day, dear customer, and we have to build more power plants, which will send your rates through the roof. Charge at night, and we'll give you a price break. As Amory Lovins terms it, "negawatts" are by far the cheapest form of power. Money talks, folks.

(4) Electric car owners will be, I'd guess, generally well-educated and financially well-off. I have to assume, therefore that they also will be aware of the problem and will act in their own best interest to do their part to avoid the problem. The same goes for everyone else in the EV infrastructure food chain from cell makers to EVSE installers. Sure there will be exceptions, but I don't see all 2.6 million EV owners all needing a quick recharge of the car at 5PM to run kids to a 7 PM soccer game.

(5) Two years ago, Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) looked at the question of electric grid capacity and discovered that there's sufficient overnight generation to charge all those electric cars and then some. They determined that the current grid has sufficient off-peak power reserve to recharge up to 85% of all the cars and light trucks currently in the U.S. fleet: that's around 180 million vehicles. That's 70-fold more than the 2.6 million UTC's report assumes will require all that extra generation. Bottom line: we don't need to build any more plants, at least not in the foreseeable future, if ever, especially as solar PV and similar decentralized energy systems become competitive. Already now on eBay you can buy solar panels from China for less than $2 a watt and we could see that drop below a $1 soon.

So, am I worried that 2.6 million EVs will crash the grid. Nope! I am worried that we won't shift to EVs soon enough to help slow climate change and forestall the consequences of peak oil. Yes, and for that I don't need a $3,500 report.

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