A while back I posted the top questions I receive from EV-curious people while charging in rural areas. There were a lot of great questions from people genuinely interested in what an electrified future looks like. There were also some pessimistic people along the way.
This got me thinking about a particular question I received on my last trip across Canada,
What happens to electricity demand if everyone drives an electric vehicle?“
The obvious answer is electricity demand will go up but the follow-up questions kind of stumped me. With that, let’s dig in and try to answer them.
Before answering this question, I think it’s important to look at the benefits of more electric vehicles on the road. The lady that posed this question was a little aggressive about it. She admitted that she was an engineer for an oil company so her perspective was definitely skewed. I think it’s important to highlight the environmental need to move to widespread electrification as this needs to be kept in mind. It is a reason to change and that’s often an afterthought.
Emissions Will Go Down
This is stating the obvious but if everyone drove an electric vehicle, CO2 emissions would go down. There are a lot of myths about electricity production or battery production being as bad or worse than ICE vehicles. These are just wrong and there are plenty of facts and studies to back that up.
I find it hard to believe that anyone can actually believe that if 1.4 billion vehicles were switched to electric that we would, collectively, be worse off. In the USA, 27% of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Removing daily contributions to this is huge.
These studies take into consideration the means that electricity and fossil fuels are delivered and produced. A big factor in the latter part of the equation is that fossil fuels, in most countries, are imported in some form. This means adding environmental emissions for transportation on top of production and operation.
Electricity, on the other hand, is largely produced within a country’s border and, more and more, supplemented by clean production through wind, solar, and hydro. There are, of course, plenty of places that generate electricity from coal or fossil fuels however there are global initiatives to move off of these dependencies.
But Could the Infrastructure Handle It?
Going green is all well and good and stating the obvious when it comes to the environmental impact. Still, the question of what happens to electricity demand and the overall infrastructure needs to be considered. The individual argued that there was no way we could currently support it and that the cost would be astronomical to upgrade infrastructures. This is a valid point, albeit a shortsighted one.
As per a German study by McKinsey & Company, “the projected growth in e-mobility will not drive an immediate or substantial increase in total electrical-grid power demand.” In locations like Germany, current electricity production can support the shift to electric vehicles.
At home in Canada, provinces like British Columbia are currently producing more electricity than their demand. In fact, BC Hydro often produces more electricity than its Canadian customers use and actually sells the rest stateside, often at a loss.
Electricity Demand at Night
For locations that may have a capacity issue, one big factor comes into play – the time of day vehicles are charged.
The vast majority of electrical vehicles charge overnight. This is typically when electricity demand is at its lowest. The problem of electricity demand is offset by managing what is produced to balance out peak charging times.
So, in these scenarios, increase demand is not a problem. That said, there will be challenges.
Delivery to Meet Demand
Producing electricity, for the most part, is not the problem. Delivering it to neighbourhoods is.
Charging a car can draw as much power as what a typical house draws in a day. Most neighbourhoods have transformers sufficient for the number of homes on the street. Putting an EV in every driveway means upping the size of the transformer to meet demand.
This is doable and something every jurisdiction should be planning on. With government mandates to get to zero emissions, many companies are getting in front of just that.
This problem is known and is why new building codes in progressive cities include capacity for electric vehicles. Addressing older neighbourhoods will be a challenge, but again, something that is known and should be addressed.
What Will Happen To Electricity Costs?
The upgrade to local power distribution will, of course, come at a cost and it will likely get passed on to consumers. In proactive countries, taxpayers are already chipping in to improve infrastructure.
Still, I did get a rebuttal from this curious passer-by in Saskatchewan. “Well, then electric companies can gouge people and jack up the prices.”
To that, I simply replied, “you mean like what the oil industry has been doing for a century?”
This argument, again, is shortsighted.
One, unlike fossil fuels, electricity is used for many applications, not just transportation and heating. This, in theory, levels the playing field immensely, unlike the oil and gas industry.
Second, if prices went up, they would have to go up a lot to hit what we currently pay to fill a gas tank. If that does happen, I would argue what’s the loss? If you pay the same or slightly more to fill an EV vs your vehicle now but have the added benefits of zero emissions and helping to stop or slow climate change, wouldn’t that be acceptable?
What Do You Think?
At the end of the day, questions like this are good but often come from a particular view. Really, this is about change and change is not easy for most. Electricity demand will undoubtedly go up and it will be on electric companies, municipalities, and governments to ensure they can deliver. Our part as consumers and residents on this planet is to put the environmental benefits at the forefront rather than an afterthought.