Speed Bumps Ahead for Electric-Vehicle Charging

Plugging in cars, even overnight, will strainlocal grids and could boost pollution

4 min read
Speed Bumps Ahead for Electric-Vehicle Charging

As major automakers like Nissan, Mitsubishi, General Motors, and others prepare to roll out mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric cars in the United States late this year, electric utilities are both salivating at the business opportunity and quietly fretting over potential outages that could mar the electric-vehicle rollout. The myth that thousands of EVs will seamlessly fold into the power grid by charging at night, using otherwise idle generating plants and power grids, is breaking down. Utilities worry that EV charging could black out the neighborhoods of some early EV adopters and give the emerging technology a black eye. Policy experts worry that the change in the grid's use could unintentionally muck up their green energy plans.

The urgency was palpable in comments by Saul Zambrano, director for clean air and transportation at San Francisco–based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), at a California Energy Commission conclave in October: "You've got to manage the runway. And from our perspective, we think the runway is getting short relative to the launch of these vehicles."

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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