When a winter storm crossed paths with the Lone Star State in mid-February, the lights went off in Texas — as did the heat, the grocery store refrigerators and gas station pumps.
Hundreds died as a result of the infrastructure failure, and state legislators have spent the months since debating how best to improve Texas’ independent electrical grid.
If the U.S. is going to meet its goals for electric vehicle adoption, Texans will need to buy millions of battery-powered cars and trucks over the next eight years. Experts hope federal funding for EV charging stations to be developed in coming years will spark the switchover.
But what happens when most, or even half, of Texas’ residents are plugging their cars into the grid to charge? Even though that’s years away, it’s a question environmentalists and renewable energy experts are already worried about.
Even Plano-based Toyota North America’s leadership has challenged the Biden administration’s goals, arguing that infrastructure must be upgraded to handle more electric vehicles.
In 2018, researchers at the University of Texas published a study that looked at how much electricity would be required if every state moved entirely to electric vehicle usage. If all passenger vehicles in Texas were electric, the state would need to produce 30% more electricity annually than it currently does. That equates to enough electricity to power 11 million homes every year, according to the study.
“Some of the challenges are where do we put these [charging] stations? Where do we make sure the stations don’t overload the grid?” said Lori Clark, the DFW Clean Cities coordinator at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “If we’re putting a bunch of DC fast chargers that are going to serve potentially 10 cars at one time in one little spot at a gas station in rural Texas, that’s going to be a little bit tricky.”
An expected 80% of all vehicle charging happens at home, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The time of day when owners choose to charge those vehicles will have the biggest impact on the grid, according to 2020 research from Pew.
Clark said she thinks there will need to be more education around the best charging times. She likens it to not running large appliances and air conditioners during peak hours of energy usage in the summer.
“Consider that electric car another large appliance — don’t plug it in or don’t let it start charging from 3 to 7 p.m.,” Clark said.
Many EVs have a built-in function that allows the user to delay charging of the vehicle until a scheduled time. Overall, Clark said, electricity providers are not concerned about the ability of the grid to handle passenger vehicles.
According to Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance executive director Tom “Smitty” Smith, power grid reliability could become a problem.
“Unless,” Smith said, “we think about how to look at electric vehicles as an asset.”
Because they don’t need as many of the moving parts required by combustion engines, electric vehicles are essentially batteries on wheels. And Smith envisions a system where a network of EV batteries plugged into home connections allows stored power in an EV to be pulled back into the grid to accommodate peak usage times.
“Generally speaking, the estimates are that you can see net benefits to all of the ratepayers in a state by using the electric grid more efficiently,” Smith said.