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EVs and the Smart Grid

Accelerating Progress

A century or so ago, Thomas Edison’s commercialization of electricity unleashed an unprecedented cascade of change, altering the way humanity worked, lived and interacted. Today, with the convergent rise of the smart grid, renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs), the power sector is embarking on a second era of transformation that promises to deliver a smarter, greener and more efficient 21st century.

Among utilities, this convergence requires them to recapitalize and expand the aging grid. Over the coming 20 years, anticipated investment in grid infrastructure will enable some $2 trillion in customer benefits, estimates the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). That represents a four- or five-fold return on the predicted cost of these upgrades, which EPRI figures will run upwards of $24 billion per year during that period. In the absence of these investments and the efficiency gains they promise, EPRI estimates that by mid century, the average electric bill could quadruple.


The weak links are the storage technology and grid management systems we’ll need to orchestrate the flow of electrons between tomorrow’s electric vehicles and a wider variety of clean and conventional power sources.

What’s more, customers are increasingly efficiency minded. The smart grid offers a more flexible way to satisfy these changing expectations. According to the 2011 IBM Global Utility Consumer Survey, 87 percent of respondents reported that they had taken at least one action to conserve energy.

Similarly, more than 90 percent of businesses and 70 percent of consumers have set specific goals to lower their electricity costs, according to a recent study cited by the New York Times . Additionally, nearly a third of companies have goals to self-generate electricity through solar panels, heat recovery and similar measures. The upshot, the study found, is that utilities could see as much as a 25 percent energy-cost reduction among business customers and increased frugality at the household level.

At a time when public discussion is focused on cost savings, investing in our national power infrastructure will do more than just help customers avoid higher utility bills. It will enable a switchover to cleaner, cheaper energy and speed the electrification of our transportation fleet. Indeed, over the past year, EVs have vaulted from promise to hot commodity. Persistent high-priced gas has attracted more drivers’ to the lower costs to recharge an EV.

The next generation battery could transform the dynamics of the grid, radically improving the performance of existing energy delivery infrastructure.

Yet to get the most from EVs, we need a smarter grid and better batteries. At night, when demand for electricity is low, the U.S. has around 250 GW of idle capacity. So if the nation’s 200 million cars and other light vehicles were electrified with the capacity to go a few hundred miles, nighttime recharging would demand about 230 GW.

A lack of electricity supply isn’t the roadblock to a transformation of our transportation system, or to greening the broader economy. Rather, the weak links are the storage technology and grid management systems we’ll need to orchestrate the flow of electrons between tomorrow’s electric vehicles and a