Smart Grids and the Possible Unintended Consequences of Electric Cars

By Peter Bernstein April 25, 2012

A funny thing may be happening on the road (literally) to a future populated with electric cars. It turns out the underlying belief that the net impact on the environment of supposedly “green” vehicles is likely to produce, and already is producing, some unintended or at least unforeseen challenges to the assumption that green cars means significant reductions in carbon footprints. This may have a significant impact not just on the environment directly, but also will play some role in the architecting of smart grids and the use of alternative energy sources.

“The long tailpipe argument”

It is not my intent here to go into all of the extensive debates now raging about how clean electric cars may be from a holistic view of things. In fact, I highly recommend a recent posting on by an author with the moniker “Breath on the Wind” which is a terrific review of the controversy. What the posting highlights in short is that the operation of electric cars may not produce carbon emissions, but there is a camp of people who are saying their consumption of electricity is mostly generated by the burning of fossil fuels, known as the “long tailpipe argument,” and the net benefits being touted by electric car advocates may be overstated.   

The key piece of the article from my perspective, as someone who follows the smart grid space periodically, was the section entitled, “Pollution Depends upon the Time of Charging.” The author does an interesting job of dissecting whether those who say we do not have the alternative energy generation capabilities in the right place for projected electric car adoption have the much touted benefits of accelerating adoption. His point is that in the U.S., for example, it depends on where you live, and what the source of your energy happens to be. There is a further note that there may be a mismatch between where electric cars are most likely to catch on (the densely populated coasts) versus where most of the fossil fuel burning electric generating facilities are located (lightly populated areas in the middle of the U.S.).  

Without getting into how deep the connection may be between electric vehicles and pollution, one thing is clear and that is that the benefits of smart grids, as they relate to load-shedding and the promise to consumers that all they need is a smart meter and some timers to be able to better manage their electric consumption.   There are already issues in California where as a result of people charging their cars at night, the local utilities have seen a change in the nature of what constitutes their peak hours. This has meant the purchasing of power from out-of-region utilities who by the way are typically not large users of alternative/cleaner sources of energy. This has given some short-term validity to the long-tail pipe folks.   For utilities in areas where electric car adoption is significant, this may require forcing a change in the pricing models which in turn could impact the buying decision of possible electric cars as the economics of ownership change.

Of course, what all of this could mean is another way to boost adoption of alternative energy solutions by customers who decide to power their cars, and other things, through self-generation or via aggregation solutions with friends and neighbors. If nothing else it will certainly give people pause as to when and where they plug in, and policy-makers pause as to approval of alternative energy production facilities as well as their consideration of rate increases. 

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle on all of this may be on the energy storage side of the equation. Clearly, a fast charging battery, including those that can be charged wirelessly, would be a game changer. At the end of the day, an electric car along with being a consumer of electricity is also an off-the-grid storage device. If batteries can be more quickly and efficiently charged, it opens up the possibility of electric stations (like gas stations) for a quick refueling, and less stress on the grid at what currently are off-peak hours. It also could accelerate alternative energy adoption by consumers if the price of long-term ownership begins to match their budgets as well as their environmental concerns.

This is a debate worth watching. As stated at the top, it is not just about being green from the sole standpoint of car ownership, it is about much, much more.

Edited by Jamie Epstein
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