What Happens If We Add 10 Million Electric Cars to Our Roads—But Can’t Plug Them In?

Everybody’s excited about the coming EV revolution. But without the right infrastructure, it’ll never go anywhere.

Angelica Cagley/Twenty20

Much has been written lately—some of it by me—about our culture’s impending electric-vehicle tipping point, which would appear to be coming our way sometime within the next decade. Analysts and trend-watchers who have been paying close attention to sales, forecasts, and technological developments now predict that electric cars will achieve “commercial liftoff”—i.e., become genuinely competitive with gas-powered cars—by the year 2022. At that point they’ll begin to garner more and more market share until they account for one-third of all new vehicle sales, which could come as early as the year 2040.

It’s a hopeful, exciting scenario—and it’s no less hopeful or exciting for the presence of the qualifying language that inevitably pops up in these articles, usually about two-thirds of the way down. That qualifying language goes something like this: “Of course, none of this will ever happen if we don’t get the infrastructure part of this equation right. Without that, the only time you’ll ever see an electric car on the road is when Ed Begley Jr. is running out to Trader Joe's for more vanilla soy milk.”

With carmakers from Tesla to Chevy (and many others) significantly ramping up their EV production, it’s easy to become captivated by the thought of so many new zero-emissions cars appearing on the road. But the qualifying language, alas, is there for a reason. Unless we have enough easy-to-use charging stations that are distributed liberally and strategically throughout the land—and unless we create and maintain the crucial networks and systems required for getting juice to these stations and into our cars without overburdening the transmission grid—the glorious EV future is never going to materialize.

If the analysts are right and we’re really looking at a massive rise in EV sales over the next 10 to 20 years, then now is quite clearly the time to begin setting the infrastructural stage. Fortunately, and one might even say auspiciously, we’re asking all the right questions—and coming up with some truly interesting answers. In anticipation of the EV era, for example, Los Angeles has begun installing car-charging stations throughout the city, with a goal of having more than 1,000 in place by the end of 2017. The electricity for a great many of them will come courtesy of all the extra capacity the city found itself with after replacing 4,500 miles’ worth of sodium-vapor streetlights with energy-efficient LEDs.

A thousand charging stations may—or may not—be enough. As has been noted many times before, for all the technological and economic hurdles we’ve had to overcome on our way to the era of the electric car, one of the biggest challenges has been a psychological one: so-called range anxiety, a fear on the part of drivers that they will find themselves stranded on the road in need of a charge yet miles away from the nearest station. The challenge is to find ways of alleviating this particular brand of consumer anxiety without giving utility managers anxieties of their own over how to provide all the juice that will fuel the EV revolution.

A new report, released just yesterday by NRDC, provides these same utility managers with a much-needed modus operandi. Underpinning the report is the basic acknowledgment that utilities will play an indispensable role in the market for EVs—and will be key among those reaping the many clean-air and carbon-reduction dividends that this expanding market will pay out to all of us, whether we drive an electric car or not.

Some of the report’s findings are intuitive, if amazing—such as the one pointing out that by using spare grid capacity to charge our vehicles, we'll significantly slash carbon emissions in our transportation sector, which currently accounts for nearly one-third of our nation’s emissions total. Right now, experts believe there’s actually enough spare capacity in the grid to power every single car and truck in America, if we can just figure out how to distribute all this energy effectively and efficiently.

But other findings are more surprising, such as the one suggesting that utilities have the potential to dramatically spur the EV market simply by lowering rates during those times when the grid is underutilized (at night, for example), or by investing in charging infrastructure in workplaces, apartment buildings, and other locations where the private market might be slower to act. Or the finding that by teaming up with local governments to install quick-charging public stations, utilities could all but eliminate range anxiety in drivers by giving them a battery refill 10 times faster than the one they would receive from their home chargers.

Los Angeles is by no means alone in preparing for the day when EVs finally tip toward mass acceptance. Cities and states that have read the tea leaves and are making plans accordingly—investing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure development—include San Diego, Kansas City, Washington State, and Georgia. In these places and elsewhere, efforts to install thousands of charging stations in workplaces and public sites are being met warmly by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and are serving as models for others.

It’s true that the momentum is taking us in the right direction, but it’s also true that there’s not an endless amount of time to get this thing right. Carmakers like Tesla, Chevrolet, Nissan, and others are pouring money into their EV production right now, based on their belief that utilities and local governments will install enough public charging stations, create incentives for homeowners to install charging stations inside their garages, and take measures to avoid overburdening the grid. If we arrive at a day when we have hundreds of thousands of EVs rolling off the lines but nowhere to plug them in, it all falls apart. People simply won’t buy the cars, auto manufacturers will return to the gas-powered status quo, and the whole EV revolution will be written off as a debacle or a fantasy.

We can’t afford to let that happen. And as long as we keep our eyes on the road ahead—and don’t slow down—it won't.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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