Closing the EV Power Gap: Navigating Limited Grid Capacity
Advantages of Grid-Independent EV Charging Solutions
Forecasting an estimated 26.4 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, energy suppliers, car manufacturers, and governments are grappling with the challenges of supplying sufficient grid power to support the EV revolution. Let’s consider the technical, economic, regulatory, policy and environmental aspects that must be overcome to drive forward a successful transition to make fossil fuel-free EV driving as smooth as a newly paved road.
The Need for Three-Phase Power and Grid Capacity
480V three-phase power is preferable for future-proofing EV DC fast charging networks, optimizing charging and electricity usage. When a building or parking lot has an updated three-phase electrical system, they can run modern Level 2 chargers. While most commercial and industrial buildings have three-phase infrastructure, which to date are already running some Level 3 (fast DC charger) systems, many older structures still have older electrical systems that cannot handle the demands of high amounts of EV charging. However, upgrading one-phase split phase or 400V networks to three-phase en masse would take substantial time, money, and political maneuvering to budget and execute.
The U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center in its guidance on developing infrastructure to charge electric vehicles indicates that DC fast charging equipment typically requires three-phase AC input to enable rapid charging along heavy traffic corridors at installed stations. Over 15% of public chargers in the U.S. as of 2021 were DC fast chargers, and this number is forecast to grow as fleet managers transition to medium- and heavy-duty commercial EVs and as demand for expanded fast charging stations increases from taxi service providers and additional EV fleet adopters. As three-phase power is one key factor in determining the rate of charging and how many EVs can be serviced concurrently, it will be key for public stations where DC fast charging is increasingly required.
Extreme Weather and Overworked Energy Grids
The concurrent trends of an increase in the number of electric vehicles in parallel with worsening climate and weather conditions magnify the likelihood of problems in delivering sufficient grid capacity to keep EVs charged, motivating the industry to provide off-grid power alternatives to supplement and complement the grid. Bad weather is a hindrance to any type of transportation. When extreme weather meets the energy grid, explosions can happen — literally. Voltage and current stability are essential for a well-functioning grid. In September 2022, heat waves taxed the California grid, to such an extent that residents were alerted to cut electricity use, including EV charging. Expect these issues to only increase along with the number of EVs on the roads. The same also happened in the Netherlands, where 25% of all new cars sold in 2022 were plug-in electric. As a result, the grid in the south of the country became overwhelmed due to charging demand in mid-2022, making the grid unstable, sending an early wake-up call to everyone associated with the EV industry that the search for sustainable off-grid energy is a priority. And the more that climate crisis causes severe, extreme and unexpected weather events in regions around the world, the more that the EV market will require resilient power sources to ensure stable and continuous power flow to charge EVs wherever they travel.
Precious Metals in Batteries
The speedy advance toward an all-electric transportation future is essential if a climate change catastrophe is to be avoided. To this end, the U.S. government recently announced an acceleration toward an EV future requiring that electric vehicles make up two-thirds of new passenger cars and a quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States by 2032.
The growing need for battery storage to support EV charging will employ large amounts of precious metals to manufacture automotive batteries – such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese – adding additional issues for safety and sustainability, especially for disposal at end-of-life. Here complementing the battery storage with fuel cells and hydrogen storage can reduce the size and weight of the batteries required, consequently reducing the consumption of precious metals and therefore improving the environmental footprint.
Energy Storage Solutions and their Associated Costs
Affordable and efficient energy storage is an essential component for overcoming grid issues. To harness wind and solar energy during the day so that an EV can be charged at night, adding electricity storage at or near EV charging stations will require considerable construction and investment in EV infrastructure. Capital expenditures (Capex) that include the cost of infrastructure, such as transformers, cables, and other equipment needed to distribute power to EV charging stations, are considerable. Operating expenditures (Opex) that include the cost of operating and maintaining the infrastructure over its lifetime will be an ongoing expense that needs to be accounted for. According to the Wall Street Journal, to provide sufficient infrastructure expansion for EV charging, utility companies may need to spend $1.5 trillion to $1.8 trillion already by 2030. Reaching decisions on investments of this magnitude, whether by private or public providers, is time-consuming and challenging, especially when these bodies are bureaucratic or conservative regarding decision-making.
One way to cut these costs is to complement the battery energy storage with on-site power generation such as from fuel cells. Adding on-site generation can dramatically reduce the size and weight – and therefore the cost – of the batteries required, not only reducing the capex investment in the batteries themselves, but also reducing the considerable cost of transporting them, which may be a repeated expense as battery lifetimes are limited and can degrade.
Regulatory and Policy Aspects of Expanding Grid Capacity
Expanding grid capacity and upgrading power infrastructure is a highly regulated, complex and expensive aspect of the work of power utilities. Large, traditionally conservative, bureaucratic and often publicly owned bodies, utilities involve numerous stakeholders, committees and execute carefully documented procedures in making budgeting, zoning and related policy decisions. Therefore, efforts to expand the grid to power EV charging is a costly and time-consuming endeavor involving permitting, safety issues, zoning and budgeting decisions and long, bureaucratic, fragmented and sometimes unclear approval processes. Often the decisions may involve different authorities and jurisdictions, each having different interests and priorities. Frequently EV charging entrepreneurs encounter a lack of alignment among the authorities involved (federal vs. state, county, public/private, etc.) Often the decision to upgrade grid capacity is not cost-justified or even technically possible in every location where EVs are needed. Electric mobility is cross-sectoral and requires institutions to engage with a wide variety of stakeholders from the mobility and power sectors as well as the building and real estate sectors. To engage efficiently across sectors and support planning, silos in government agencies as well as in industry need to be broken down. The bottom line, the timeline for grid expansion is not likely to fully serve the needs of the rapidly expanding EV charging market; solutions are needed to fill the gap.
As the objective of electric vehicles is primarily to reduce the carbon emissions from the transportation sector, it is frustrating when the insufficient capacity of the grid for charging the EVs drives increased use of fossil-fueled grid power to run them. Though EVs are touted as an environmental game-changer, unless the electricity to charge them is produced from renewable sources, the increased fossil-fuel power consumption demanded by EVs is heavy and susceptible to carbon taxes and bans, contributing to climate change and air pollution. MIT Professor Ian Miller stated it would take roughly 70 pounds of coal to produce the energy required to charge a 66kWh electric car battery. Because renewable energy solutions such as solar and wind are intermittent, they must be paired with energy storage to amply drive EV charging. Optimally and affordably filling the power gap in sync with the rapid growth of the EV market will require a diversity of technologies, expanding existing grid infrastructure by incorporating renewable energy resources together with battery storage, hydrogen fuel cells for reliable, weather-resilient on-site power generation and other creative clean energy solutions.
For climate change goals and power demands from EVs to be met, it’s clear that viable alternatives to fossil fuels must be employed. The good news is that they already exist. Hydrogen and ammonia fuel cells are a resilient, weather-resistant and stable source of energy that provide reliable on-site power generation that kicks in when wind and sun are not available and energy storage has been depleted. One such fuel cell solution – the GenCell EVOX™, a green, grid-independent EV charging solution rapidly refuels electric cars with three-phase connectivity and options for fast, super, and turbo DC charging. Fuel cell solutions use hydrogen and ammonia fuel that can be produced from multiple sources, including renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, making them environmentally friendly and eligible for clean energy incentives that significantly improve the ROI for EV charging infrastructure expansion. In cities and other locations with high grid demand, where upgrades will take considerable time and money, hydrogen and ammonia fuel cell charging can be a great interim solution, implemented quickly and repositioned to other sites when the utility power has been expanded.
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