It’s a pertinent question in that, as a new research note from analysts at Raymond James points out, “by definition, a vehicle that runs entirely on electric power rather than petroleum fuel adds to electricity demand, while detracting from oil demand.” Moreover, as Tesla itself notes, “Every time Tesla breaks into a new market, the media brings up the same concern: that electric vehicles will overwhelm electric grids, resulting in blackouts.”
So is that really true? To answer the question, here are a few facts that the Raymond James analysis considers.
First, the market for electric vehicles is going to grow. Right now, all kinds of electric vehicles (a category that, for Raymond James, includes plug-in hybrids) comprise 0.72 percent of the auto market, but the investment advisory firm projects that there will be some 250,000 of these cars sold per year by 2016.
Second, today’s electric vehicles have a problem of range per charge. “It is very rare for EVs — using the latest commercial battery technology — to surpass 100 miles per charge,” write Raymond James’s Pavel Molchanov and Carlos Newall, though the Tesla Model S goes farther due to its huge battery.
What that means is that there needs to be charging stations all over the country to support the vehicles. There are currently 9,047 charging stations in the United States, and that number, too, will grow as vehicle numbers increase — meaning, we have an entirely new piece of energy infrastructure emerging here.
So what does all of this do to the power grid?
To answer it, Raymond James assumes that in 2017 there will be 1 million electric vehicles on the road, and that each one will use 5,400 kilowatt-hours per year in energy (equivalent to 10,000 miles driven). But because total U.S. electricity demand is so massive — it amounted to 3,735,000 gigawatt hours last year, where a gigawatt hour is equivalent to a million kilowatt hours — it turns out that these million EVs would be just .14 percent of total demand. That’s “barely a rounding error,” note the Raymond James analysts.
It would take 7 million electric vehicles, they continue, to consume 1 percent of today’s total U.S. electricity demand.
However, there’s a nuance here: Vehicle charging is also likely to be clustered in time — around the evening hour when people get home from work and charge up their cars for the next day. This just happens to be the same peak time period when people get home and use a lot of electricity in general. In this sense, EVs could “place further strain on the grid.” But as Molchanov and Newall note, “given how slowly EV adoption has been ramping up, there is ample time for the utility sector to address this issue.”
“In other words, if you happen to experience a blackout anytime soon, don’t blame EV charging!” they conclude.