Electric cars won’t overload the power grid — and they could even help modernize our aging infrastructure

  • Electric cars won’t overwhelm the US grid anytime soon, energy and transportation experts say. 
  • EVs don’t consume a lot of energy now, and it will be decades before electric cars take over fully.
  • EVs can be charged when it’s best for the grid and may even be able to store energy for the future.

Battery-powered Teslas, Fords, and Volkswagens aren’t about to overwhelm the US electrical grid, despite what Tucker Carlson and some Republican politicians say. 

Last month, electric-vehicle skeptics had a field day when California’s utility urged customers to conserve power during a scorching heat wave by not charging their cars during certain hours. Some conservatives questioned how the state expected to ban sales of combustion-engine cars by 2035 if it couldn’t handle the number of EVs on the road. 

On his Fox News show, Carlson bashed electric cars as a “new way to overburden California’s already collapsing energy grid.” 

Energy and transportation experts disagree. More electric cars plugging in will increase energy demands over time, necessitating a more robust grid and smarter charging habits, they say. But there’s no cause for immediate alarm. With careful planning, there will be plenty of electricity to go around. 

EVs may someday make the grid stronger and more resilient. 

EVs aren’t a big power suck

Though California has more electric cars than any other state, they make up just .4% of all energy consumption during peak hours. Even at 2030 estimates, some 5.6 million electric cars, trucks, and vans would only comprise 4% of peak loads.

“Saying they’re what’s straining the grid ignores 99.6% of challenge,” Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said in a recent blog post. 

Though EV sales are rising, Americans keep their cars for 12 years on average, so it’s going to be a long time before the entire US fleet changes over. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability-research group, projects that total US energy demand will grow 1% to 2% annually as a result of electric-car adoption. That’s comparable to the increases utilities saw during the energy-consumption booms of the 20th century, with the proliferation of refrigeration and air-conditioning, the group said.

“Load growth is something that some utilities haven’t had to deal with for a while, but it’s generally well within the range of what utilities can plan and manage for,” Chaz Teplin, a principal at RMI, said, adding that the larger challenge will be transitioning the country to renewable energy sources.  Still, grid upgrades will be needed to handle the extra load, experts say. According to a 2020 study from the Brattle Group, 20 million light-duty EVs on US roads by 2030 will require a $45 to $75 billion investment in more robust energy generation, distribution, and storage. 

EVs are uniquely flexible

Unlike a refrigerator that needs to keep food cold 24/7 or an air conditioner that might draw power for hours on end on a hot day, a typical electric car might be parked 23 hours out of the day. That affords lots of flexibility in terms of when they’re charged. Shifting charging to times that are most advantageous to the grid — like overnight when demand is low or during the day when solar generation is high — can greatly reduce peak grid stress, even with increased demand from EVs, experts said.

For the foreseeable future, we can do a lot with the grid we already have,” Nick Nigro, the founder of Atlas Public Policy, a transportation-focused consultancy, told Insider. 

RMI sees California’s recent heat wave as proof that managed charging works: People adjusted their habits and the state avoided blackouts. If drivers continue to charge whenever they feel like it, “then it means we need to build an extremely robust grid,” Matthias Preindl, an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University, said. But smart-grid technology that instructs vehicles when to charge could do wonders for managing peak loads and negate the need for infrastructure upgrades in many areas, he said. Some utilities have smart-charging programs, but they aren’t commonplace yet. 

A recent study of the 2035 EV ecosystem found that encouraging people to charge during the day could save Western states billions on energy-storage investments. Increased solar generation will require batteries to store electricity for nighttime use, but daytime charging cuts down on that need.

In the future, EVs can support the grid

Some experts envision a future where EVs can strengthen power grids if used cleverly. Vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, technology would transform plugged-in electric cars into a distributed battery system that could help utilities store electricity for emergencies or times of excessive demand. 

This future is far off, but car companies are dabbling in adjacent technologies. The Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck can act as a backup generator and power a home for up to three days, for example. Preindl said V2G will be key for storing energy generated by wind and solar and transitioning the US to clean energy sources. “If all cars are electric, the amount of energy storage we have access to is huge,” he said.