With record heat searing much of the state, while numerous wildfires rage out of control, California has ordered a stage-2 power-grid emergency, and rolling blackouts could follow.
The U.S. electric grid has been hammered this year by a series of extreme weather events, including the unexpected February ice storm that left much of Texas in the dark — state regulators again last month warning of potential outages.
Each time the grid goes down it not only leaves businesses and homeowners in the dark but it also threatens EV owners who could find themselves stuck at home or on the highway. And that comes at a time when the energy infrastructure faces growing demand from the battery-electric vehicles expected to roll out on U.S. roads by the millions during the course of the coming decade.
The U.S. reached “the tipping point” this year, according to General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, with demand for battery-electric vehicles growing at a record pace, spurred in part by the debut of an assortment of new models like the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, the Volkswagen ID.4 and the Ford Mustang Mach-E. But not everyone is convinced she’s right. Studies find consumers are still reluctant to buy BEVs due to high costs, lack of a nationwide charging network — and growing concerns about the energy grid.
Making sure electricity is available
Those are all issues the Biden administration aims to address, among other things, through the proposed infrastructure bill that would set aside $170 billion to directly back the shift to battery-electric vehicles. About 10% of that is earmarked for a coast-to-coast charging system to rival today’s ubiquitous network of gasoline stations.
“We need to jam on the accelerator here,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a video seminar outlining the administration’s desire to promote battery-electric vehicles — with an emphasis on designing, engineering and producing them domestically.
“We’re going to double down on our R&D in the technologies that will make EVs easier to manufacture, easier to deploy, easier for the American people to access,” said the former Michigan governor.
There are a number of reasons behind the administration’s push for battery-car technology. There’s the need to reduce carbon emissions in order to meet global warming reduction targets. There’s a desire to reduce America’s dependence upon petroleum imports, especially from less-than-friendly sources like Venezuela. There’s also a growing concern China will wind up dominating the EV segment — something that raises defense, as well as economic, concerns.
A need to remain No. 1
“China’s intent — made clear by its Made in China 2025 plan and subsequent moves to control the supply chain for electric, connected vehicles — poses a grave threat to American leadership, jobs and national security,” warned Robbie Diamond, CEO of the group Securing America’s Future Energy, in a report released last September.
China is not only the world’s largest market for battery-electric vehicles but also has the largest network of lithium-ion battery plants, 93 compared to just four in the U.S., according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. And the data service forecasts that China will have 140 of these “gigafactories” in place by 2030, compared to as few as 10 in the States.
In a new National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, the Department of Energy laid out a variety of steps to promote more U.S. production. That starts with greater access to raw materials. Internally, the administration has been debating whether to promote greater domestic mining or ally with friendly trade partners, such as Canada and Australia, to build up stocks of critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel.
Then there’s the carrot-and-stick of incentives. The administration is expected to offer direct financial incentives to prop up the business case for building both battery and assembly plants in the U.S. A proposed Senate bill would increase today’s $7,500 tax credits on battery vehicles to as much as $12,500 — but there’s a catch. The higher figure would, in part, be reserved only for vehicles domestically produced.
Making batteries as well as EVs
There are signs that manufacturers are listening. General Motors will open its first U.S. battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio later this year. It recently announced a second for Spring Hill, Tennessee — and it is expected to announce plans for additional plants in the coming weeks. Ford CEO Jim Farley last month indicated the second-largest domestic automaker is likely to commit to battery production, as well.
Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada is today one of the world’s largest sources of lithium-ion batteries and it will add capacity alongside the assembly plant it’s erecting in Texas, with CEO Elon Musk indicating other production operations will follow.
Production of electrified vehicles could also see a big growth spurt as a response to U.S. incentives. GM now plans to produce BEVs at two Michigan plants and another in Tennessee — though it also will produce some models in Mexico and Canada. Ford, Volkswagen, Nissan and Volvo are among the automakers who either are or will produce plug-based models in the U.S. And several senior Toyota officials, according to NBCNews, earlier this month said they may follow, depending upon what the Biden administration comes up with.
While the White House has focused much of its attention directly on BEVs — and the battery manufacturing process — there’s another area that will need attention in any final infrastructure bill, experts emphasize.
Upgrading and updating the grid
“We have to recognize that the (electric) infrastructure in parts of this country has fallen behind that (of) many other parts of the world,” said Scott Hinson, the CEO of Pecan Street, an Austin, Texas-based energy research project.
“It’s fixable,” added Hinson, though he worries, “We don’t tend to work on things until they’re a big problem.”
The overall U.S. energy infrastructure has plenty of problems, starting with cybersecurity threats, as the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in May demonstrated. Power companies have done a better job at locking out hackers, according to American Public Power Association President and CEO Joy Ditto, but that “doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
And they’ve struggled to deal with numerous other challenges. California utilities have disrupted power on a number of occasions to prevent downed wires from setting wildfires. The state also faced rolling blackouts a few years back due to energy shortages.
Major outages — those affecting more than 50,000 homes or businesses — grew tenfold between the mid-1980s and 2012, according to a study by Climate Central, a non-profit research organization. The American Society of Civil Engineers reported 3,571 such disruptions in 2015 alone. And, if anything, there is fear the arrival of electric vehicles will only worsen the problem.
A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that increased demand for electricity — much of that for electric vehicles — could rise 38% by 2050.
Drawing more power
While there seems little doubt that BEVs will increase the nation’s grid load, “The transition … will be slow,” contends Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, one of the nation’s largest public charging companies. The primary reason for his optimism is his expectation that 80% of EV owners now charge their vehicles at night, and mostly from home, taking advantage of a general surplus of off-peak generating capacity. ChargePoint’s business model is based on the expectation that will remain the case going forward.
But, even in off-hours, the already creaky grid is likely to become still more stressed, requiring plenty of upgrades, on top of new generating capacity — whether fossil-fueled or renewable, experts agree.
If GM’s Barra is right, the U.S. is inexorably moving toward a point where battery-electric vehicles push gas and diesel models aside. But there will be plenty of challenges getting there, and the Biden administration will come under intense pressure to come up with solutions.
But it also has to find a way to sell its proposals, both to the public and to a divided Congress. While David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, says he has some issues with the president’s initial infrastructure plan, he thinks a compromise is critical.
“It’s extremely important and we have to push past the political polarization we’re facing now,” said Cole. “The move to EVs shouldn’t be politicized.”
The public largely appears to agree. Nearly half of U.S. adults support the idea of phasing out entirely vehicles using internal combustion engines, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. And the number has been growing, surveys show, especially among Millennials and Gen-Z.
Portions of this story first appeared on NBCNews.com.