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Mobility Are our power grids ready for an electric vehicle surge?

A Tesla vehicle parks at a Tesla Supercharger station in Daly City, Calif., on May 20, 2019.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By 2040, Ottawa wants every new vehicle sold to be able to drive without producing CO2 emissions.

If that comes about, it means new car buyers in 21 years will have three options: plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

If people choose PHEVs or BEVs, that will mean a lot more vehicles plugging in for charging. Worldwide, more than four million BEVs and PHEVs have been sold so far – and that’s been predicted to increase to 125 million by 2030.

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But can our homes (and our electrical grids) handle a dozen or more electric cars plugging in on every street? That’s also assuming that everyone has somewhere to plug them in.

“A dozen EVs using [240-volt] Level 2 charging is similar to customers running a dozen ovens at the same time – just like Christmas dinner,” said Tanya Fish, a BC Hydro spokeswoman in an e-mail statement.

In British Columbia, for example, there are currently about 17,000 EVs on the road and BC Hydro is predicting there will be around 350,000 by 2030, Fish said.

“This is estimated to add an additional 1,050 gigawatt hours of electricity load per year and is something we’ve been planning for and will be able to supply,” Fish said. To put that in perspective, BC Hydro sold nearly 58,000 gigawatt hours of power in 2017.

For utilities, a surge of EV adoption could actually be a business opportunity, says Derek May, senior project manager of transportation at Pollution Probe, a national environmental non-profit.

“We’ve spoken with utilities from coast to coast about this issue and they’re uniformly really excited,” May says. “it’s going to be a challenge, but it’s definitely a challenge utilities are ready for and would welcome – you’d better believe that if there’s money on the table waiting for them to capture, they’ll develop solutions to make sure charging can happen.

Every province in Canada has a lot of generation capacity right now – there’s even excess generation capacity now that could be used for charging,” May says. “That’s why a few are downloading surplus power to other states, sometimes at a loss.”

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The growth of electric and hybrid vehicles will increase the demand for electricity.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Charge by night?

EVs can be a boon here, especially as users typically charge in the evening and overnight, when there’s lower demand. Depending on the province, the electricity could even be cleaner, because “in peak periods during the day, provinces like Ontario will bring natural-gas plants online pretty quickly to the meet the electricity demand,” he says.

He adds that the existing grid should be able handle the extra load – although the local transformer handling your street might not. Typically, five to 15 homes are served by one transformer.

“A Level 2 charger draws about the same power as a home. So, if every home had EVs and all were charging simultaneously, then we would need to assess the location and the area impact to see if upgrades are required to the local infrastructure,” said Toronto Hydro spokeswoman Tori Gass in an e-mail. “This could be as simple as a routine transformer swap-out.”

The cost of replacing a transformer starts at around $10,000, she said.

Smart charging?

Another way utilities can adapt is to offer incentives to people who charge during off-peak hours or encourage the use of smart chargers, says Cara Clairman, president and chief executive officer of Plug’n Drive, a Toronto-based pro-EV non-profit.

Most EVs allow you to schedule when they’ll charge after they’re plugged in, while smart chargers would allow the utility company keep track of when you charge – and control how much power gets sent to your charger during peak hours.

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“I participated in a pilot where they did this to my car,” Clairman says. “They take control – the whole goal is: just be sure my car is charged by 7:30 a.m..”

Quite frankly, handling an EV boom shouldn’t cripple utilities as long as they can plan for it, Clairman says.

“These are all problems that can be solved,” Clairman says. “But a lot of people get an EV and plug it in and never contact their utility, just like they never did when they put in a hot tub or a pool – you have to let them know.”

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