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Mass EV Adoption Will Crush Power Grid Unless Consumers Nudged Away From Night Charging: Stanford Study

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: April 3, 2023
EV drivers need to be nudged away from charging their vehicles at night in order for the power grid to cope with increased demand, a Stanford study stated.
An EV charger in the snow at Salford University in January of 2023 in England. A Stanford computer modeling study states that mass EV adoption will crush the power grid unless consumers are nudged to change their behavior and stop charging at night. (Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A recent study published by Stanford researchers making the rounds on social media states that if electric vehicle adoption continues at its current course, the electric grid will be put in serious jeopardy because owners are prone to charge overnight, and thus they must be conditioned to change their behavior.

Although the study is not new, being published in January of 2022 in the journal Applied Energy and publicized by Stanford’s media department in September of 2022, as left-wing governments in Canada and California utilized the end of 2022’s heatwaves to push ahead with the initiative to force all-electric vehicles as soon as 2035, the topic has been front of mind.

Stanford’s press release stated that they expect that in slightly more than a single decade of projected rates of EV adoption, peak electricity demand could increase by 25 percent.

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The prospect is especially significant in light of last summer’s California heat wave, which resulted in rolling blackouts in some regions as America’s most populous state set a new all time high for peak demand at over 52,000 megawatts in September of 2022.

The figure was extremely significant. In 2021, California’s peak demand hit only 43,982 megawatts. The previous all time high was 50,270, logged in 2006.

Both far eclipsed Canada’s all-time-high, a country which has almost as many people as California and faces long and harsh winters, which was a contrite 27,005 megawatts, also set in 2006.

Stanford stated that in February of 2022, EV sales as a percentage of total automotive sales in California was only 6 or 7 percent. Noting that the Gavin Newsome government wants 5 to 6 million EVs on the road by 2030, Stanford says that if EV saturation reaches only 30 or 40 percent that “the grid will experience significant stress without major investments and changes in charging habits.”

“Building that infrastructure requires significant lead time and cannot be done overnight,” the school points out.

The article adds that once EV density in the western United States reaches only 50 percent, the grid will require more than 5 nuclear reactors worth of electrical storage to meet demand with current charging habits.

But they note that if drivers are nudged to charge their vehicles at work or during the daytime when solar panels and wind turbines are active, that figure could be reduced to 4.2 nuclear reactors.

“We encourage policymakers to consider utility rates that encourage day charging and incentivize investment in charging infrastructure to shift drivers from home to work for charging,” said co-author Ram Rajagopal, an Associate Professor at Stanford.

Stanford explains, “Current time-of-use rates encourage consumers to switch electricity use to nighttime whenever possible, like running the dishwasher and charging EVs,” stating that the structure still reflects the pre-solar and pre-wind power era where demand would often exceed supply during daylight hours.

“Today, California has excess electricity during late mornings and early afternoons, thanks mainly to its solar capacity,” they explain, adding that if EVs charged during this period “then the cheap power would be used instead of wasted.”

But if current habits persist, “At the local level, if a third of homes in a neighborhood have EVs and most of the owners continue to set charging to start at 11 p.m. or whenever electricity rates drop, the local grid could become unstable,” the press release noted.

The current situation with California’s power demand is curious, assuming that Stanford’s model-based study is completely accurate with real world conditions.

In the abstract of the paper, the authors say they were able to come to the conclusions for the scenarios they modeled with enormous ease when they stated that, “Each was calculated in under 45 s on a laptop computer.”

February reporting on the topic by The Wall Street Journal stated that experts across the country are already concerned about how to deliver enough power to homes and businesses as the trend continues, noting that current infrastructure is insufficient to carry the increased load.

“The potential for much more serious bottlenecks looms in the local legs of the grid that transmit electricity to individual homes and businesses,” the Journal stated. “Expensive upgrades could be needed for these neighborhood power-distribution systems. Additional spending will be needed to bolster the wires and transformers serving commercial sites as electric trucks and delivery vans become common.”

For home and business owners trying to make ends meet in an adverse inflationary economic environment, this is a concerning development. “The more they invest in the grid, the more those costs go back to consumers,” a representative for KPMG told the outlet.

WSJ likewise noted that a mitigation technique is to nudge consumers into charging during the day instead of at night by raising the costs of electricity during the evening.

The article quoted the Electric Power Research Institute, a non-profit, as estimating that by the time the 2030 target is realized, EVs will scale national electricity demand by as much as 13 percent, with electric cars, busses, and trucks taking 11 percent of all generation.

To the contrary, a September of 2022 article by Scientific American published in the wake of the California blackouts criticized rightist pundits such as Tucker Carlson, who at the time called EVs the “new way to overburden California’s already collapsing energy grid,” stating that, “In fact, experts see EV batteries as part of the solution.”

But SA conceded that at present, not only is the capacity not there, but “that success will hinge on utilities being proactive in planning for millions of additional EVs on the roads in the coming decades.”

“EV owners and utilities must take advantage of up-and-coming charging technologies that will save the grid from unnecessary stress,” they added.

One such technology SA advocated for was “managed charging,” which involves a central authority preventing homeowners from charging their vehicles “to accommodate grid conditions.”

This type of social credit-style central intervention was already seen, also in September of 2022, but in Colorado instead of California, when the local utility operator locked smart meter users out from using their air conditioning during a heatwave.

Denver news outlet KIRO7 reported that Xcel Energy pushed smart meters into 22,000 homes using a program that started 6 years prior that “allows customers to receive rebates in exchange for allowing Xcel to adjust their thermostats during the summer’s hottest days to ease the electrical grid.”

“When temperatures in the Denver area climbed into the 90s on Tuesday, residents attempted to lower their thermostats to cool off. Many found that they were unable to do so,” the article reported, accompanied by a photo of a smart meter displaying an error message that “due to a rare energy emergency,” the owner would be locked out from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

A spokesperson for the company told another area media outlet, “Let’s remember that this is something that customers choose to be a part of based on the incentives.”