Electric Car Boom Could Deliver a Surge in Grid Power

UPDATE: Here’s the bad news about electric vehicles: They’re going to be hell on the grid. The Utilities Telecom Council trade group reports that electric vehicles will require a 16-fold increase in power usage in the next decade, putting pressure on utilities to find out how to handle car charging as quickly as possible.

UTC’s report, prepared by The Shpigler Group, takes a rather optimistic view of how popular plug-in cars are going to be. UPDATED: It predicts electricity demand from plug-ins will grow from 146,000 megawatt-hours in 2010 to 2.6 million mWh kWh by 2020.

That’s a fraction of overall grid demand, but it’s largely the way people will plug in their EVs that could make it particularly hard for utilities to deal with the trend. Each plug-in car adds roughly the equivalent of a new house to the local grid’s electricity demand, which is something most neighborhood distribution feeders and substations weren’t built to supply.

Blown transformers, neighborhood blackouts and other problems could emerge as a result of too many EVs in concentrated areas getting plugged into neighborhood garages en masse. Pacific Gas & Electric has identified hot spots like Berkeley — home of the plug-in Toyota (s tm) Prius hybrid retrofit market — as neighborhoods that might be facing this kind of problem soon.

Beyond the geographical issues, there’s a timing issue, too. If they all start charging when people come home from work — the same time they’re cranking up their household power use — it could crash the grid.

Charge them around midnight, however, and the nation could see plug-ins replace more than half its 254 million existing cars without adding a single new power plant, according to a study from DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s because lots of 24/7 power generation resources get wasted at night, when everyone goes to bed and power demand peak drops to its minimum level. Again, however, we need technology to help us solve this problem.

Utilities are preparing for future EVs with a host of pilot projects, with the likes of gear providers GE (s GE), Siemens (s si), Schneider Electric, and ABB (s abb). At the same time, automakers are partnering with these companies in order to build the charging networks they’ll need to sell more EVs in the next decade. Private car-charging networks, such as NRG Energy’s subscription-style EV charging network (s nrg) in Texas, are also emerging.

Of course, all these issues depend upon how popular plug-in cars will become over the next decade. It’s hard to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the electric equivalent of a nationwide network of gas stations before you know how many EVs there will be on the road.

The Obama Administration insists that 1 million plug-ins will be on U.S. highways by 2015, but many are more pessimistic. In the meantime, local plug-in networks are being built by intrepid startups serving the small, yet well-connected, audience of EV drivers now on the road.

Image courtesy of Flying Amos via Creative Commons license.