The Big Problem with Electric Vehicles

Charging station icons created by Aldo Cervantes - Flaticon

During the first half of 2022 there has been lots of talk about pushing the folks in the US from our internal combustion engine (ICE) cars to Electric Vehicles (EV). California (and several other states who blindly follow California) have recently decided by 2035 no new gas cars can be sold in the state. This is not an out-right ban on ICE cars and not to say residents can’t purchase from a neighboring state that still sells ICE cards. General Motor’s wants their Buick brand to be EV only by 2030. GM is offering to buy-out dealers who don’t want to make the (expensive) switch to electric. Why do I get this feeling Buick is going to be joining Pontiac, Saturn and Oldsmobile as yet another GM brand that has become defunct. Buick has an identity crisis and they are trying to target a younger demographic with sporty and high-tech (Alexa included) vehicles. EV’s however make up less than 10% of their total vehicle sales. While Buick’s target demographic do want EVs, they don’t want Buick EVs. The EV market is growing and is not just Tesla anymore. Ford has their Mach-E Mustang and the F-150 Lightning, Hyundai has the Ioniq 5. Jeep just recently announced they have plans four new EV’s coming out in 2025. Chevy announced a new Equinox EV in 2024 priced around $30K USD which adds to their existing EV line up including Blazer, Silverado and Bolt EVs. There is no problem with availability and (for the most part) affordability of EVs (though if Lithium shortages are going to continue this could have a big impact on both availability and affordability of future EVs).

California’s move is to reduce (and eventually eliminate) transportation related greenhouse-gas emissions. Notice the emphasis on ‘transportation related” as the much of the electricity production is still via gas or coal power plants and still results in greenhouse-gas emissions. Not to mention the environmental hazards from production (lithium mining) and eventually depletion of the EV batteries. However, I am not going to go in-depth about those issues as that is the scope of this article.

The big problem with EV’s is they required electricity to charge their batteries. While this is not rocket science, it is something all these legislators/politicians seem to be overlooking. So why is this a problem? One word: Infrastructure. For the purpose of this article I am going to be discussing two parts of the ‘infrastructure’ the consumer side (charging stations) and the supply side (the US power grid).

Consume Side Infrastructure Issues. EV owners need to charge their EVs. This is accomplished via charging stations. Seems simple enough, but there are several sub issues with access (where are charging stations) and costs (who pays for the charging station and/or the electricity used during charging).

  • For those who own a home with a garage they can simply use the included (or in the case of Tesla sold separately) charger and plug into a standard 120 V outlet. This is commonly refereed to as Level 1 charging and while it is cheap and convenient (no special outlet or cables needed) it is painfully slow. It can take up to 20-hours to fully charge an EV at Level 1. Level 2 charging is much faster (3 to 7 times of Level 1). However, that increased speed comes at a greater cost. Owners need to purchase the Level 2 charger and need to have an authorized electrician (who will also need to add a dedicated 240 V circuit for the charger) install the charger. The charging costs from home charging are part of their regular monthly utility bill.
  • But what about apartments, townhouses and condos? Some complex’s currently offer a handful of charging stations n a first-come first-serve basis. I have heard some condo’s will allow the owner (and at their own expense) to have an EV charging station installed in their designated parking area in the building’s garage. Not sure who is on the hook for electricity usage of the charging station. Then there are complexes that don’t have a parking garage, instead each unit is assigned a covered parking space(s). In this case will each assigned space have its own charging station?  Who pays for the charging stations and the electricity used. For condos and townhouse this could be in the form of a special assessment from all unit owners. For rental units the property owner/landlord is going to have to pay for these charging stations and they likely will pass the cost on to the tenant through rent increases (as if rent wasn’t expensive already).
  • If home charging is not enough or even available there are always Public Charging Stations. However, they are still very far and few between, especially for those who live/work outside a metropolitan area. If you are fortunate enough to live/work in a metropolitan area (downtown) there is a good chance there are going to be public charging stations nearby. Of course that is provided the charging stations are not broken or have malfunctioned. Unlike home charging, most public charging stations are going to be a pay per use. While costs will vary from location and charging stations (much like gas prices do) it still likely to be cheaper than topping off the gas tank.
  • Drivers know where the nearest gas station is located. Especially when traveling along major interstates/highways there always billboards and even exit ‘services’ signs informing drivers of Food, Gas, Lodging and more located nearby the upcoming exit. What about EV Charging stations. I suppose “there’s an app for that” so if you have the time you can plan ahead. However, recharging an EV on the road is not as quick as stopping off at a gas station and filling the tank. There is downtime involved (and much longer than that need to refuel) so the ideal places to have public charging stations are going to resultants or shopping center. This can tide an EV owner over until they can get back home for a full charge. I suppose highway rest areas are a good place too, but there are other ‘access issues’ associated with these places given how far away they are from infrastructure. Obviously lodging (hotels/motels) are going to be ideal place to get a full charge overnight.
  • It is important to understand gas stations are their own businesses. Their sole purpose of that station is to sell gas (and overprice food/beverages, OTC medications and automotive items). Restaurants, shopping centers, hotels and motels are not in the business of charging EV’s. Therefore, it is on the business owner to install charging stations (again at their cost) to be able to accommodate travelers.
  • Also not every EV charges at the same rate and not every charging station offers the same charging speed. Electrify America is hoping to make consumer EV charging more simple. This includes easier to understand charging stations (charging speeds and payment options). In additonal they pan on adding 1,800 fast charging stations and 10,000 individual chargers across North America by 2026.
  • Battery technology is slowly improving leading to greater range and less charging times with an increased overall battery life (and reduce the chances of battery failures). However, there is still a lot more room for improvements in order for EVs to fully replace ICE cars.

Supply Side Infrastructure Issues. Again EV owners need to charge their EVs and many whom if able to will prefer to do so at their home. This likely is going to be during be in the afternoon/early evening hours. However, the US Power Grid is well how shall we put this….very old, outdated, fragile, unsecured etc.

  • An EV charging uses a lot of electricity. A level 2 charger uses about 7.2 kwh (kilowatt/hour) of electricity. For comparison an electric clothes dryer uses about 5 kwh of electricity. This not nescrailly a bad thing as while pointed out earlier most US power plants are still coal or gas, the greenhouse gas emissions are contained to the area around the generating station, not spread out all over. It is however a large power draw on the grid. Similar to everyone coming home at the same time in the afternoon and powering up air conditioners, then starting a load of laundry and cooking dinner with an electric oven/range (Los Angeles and other cities are banning Natural Gas appliances in new construction).
  • The extreme heat this past summer in California has brought warnings from the local utilities of protentional rolling blackouts due to more energy being consumed than is being produced. On the afternoon of September 6. 2022 demand in California topped 52K Mega Watts (52,000,000 kilowatts). With rolling blackouts imminent due to energy supplies so thinly stretched the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) issued a cell phone alert to reduce usage. This meant avoid charging your EV until the late evening hours when demand had lessened. In Colorado 22,000 smart thermostats were locked over ‘energy emergency’ in early September 2022. For those who were born in this millennium, understand this is nothing new. Growing up in Southern California in the 80’s I can remember the local electricity provider Southern California Edison (SCE) would run PSA on radio and TV: “Give your appliances the afternoon off” and others featuring the late George Burns and Betty White.
  • In the Phoenix metro area there are many High Pollution Advisory days due to excessive ground-level Ozone. One of the recommendations to help reduce Ozone emissions is to refuel after dark (sunlight reacts with the emission from the pump forming ground level Ozone). This is only a recommendation and does not mean people are not allowed to refuel during daylight hours on high pollution days. The worse that is going to happen is more ground level ozone is going to be generated. However, during Energy Emergencies which again typically are going to be during peak usage times and the same time when EV owners are likely charging their EVs. Should they continue to charge during an Energy Emergencies it could result in blackouts due to demand for electricity exceeding the supply.  However, public education (PSA campaigns) should help EV owners change their habits and charge their EVs in the later hours of the evening. This should not be a big deal for Level 2 charging as most EVs at this level can be fully charged within a few hours. For those who have Level 1 charging this can be an issue due to the long charge times required.
  • Over the past couple decades American homes have gotten larger and more open. This results in more energy to cool/heat these homes. Appliances have become more energy efficient such as LED TV’s which use around 155 watts (.155 kw) of energy compared to 400 watts (.4 kw) of the old CRT (tube) TV’s. However, in decades past most American households had one may two CRT TVs. Now the average American household as 2.5 TVs with 31% having four or more TVs. Factor in computers. laptops, monitors, gaming consoles, IoT devices and any other common electronic tech items our homes are more power hungry then ever. Plus bans on natural gas appliances in new construction are not helping this situation either.
  • On the subject of power hungry: Crypto asset operations use between 0.9 and 1.7 percent of the US’s total electricity use.  Not only are Cryptos taking a lot of energy away from residences who need it more, but they are also producing a lot of greenhouse gasses and e-waste (constantly replacing computer with newer and more powerful). Some newer blockchains have changed the way they function and have reduce their energy consumption by 99.95%.
  • The good news is upgrades are being made to the grid (though slow). New solar farms under construction throughout the US which will produce clean and renewable energy.  Wind farms are being built too, but unlike solar they have a few short comings, including (big surprise) the need wind;  no wind, no electricity being generated. Plus unlike solar panels, wind turbines are mechanical and can fail in extreme cold as happened in Texas during the winter storms of 2021 (though the outages were caused by a much larger issue (Texas’ power grid) than frozen wind turbines.
  • Location, Location, Location! Solar Farms and Wind Farms are being built in large open areas, typically miles away from where the power is needed. So transmission lines need to be built to carry the generated power from solar and wind to sub-stations. This takes time…a lot of time (and money). Ironically, the actual construction takes the least amount of time. Getting regulatory approval (including environmental impact studies) to build, accruing right-away (buying land for the transmission poles to be built upon) and finding labor. In the Phoenix Metro area the major power provider is Salt River Project (SRP). SRP is currently wrapping up (Lines In-Service by end of April 2023) the Abel-Pfister-Ball 230kV transmission project. Planning for this 20-mile double-circuit transmission line project began in April 2008 with construction starting in August 2022. If this project is completed by April 2023 (was supposed to be completed at the end of 2021, but SRP delayed the start to add another new substation) this would be 15-years from start to finish. That is two-years longer than the ICE car sales ban goes into effect in California (and other states who blindly follow California’s auto regulations). During that 15-year time frame growth (especially in the last couple years) is causing electricity demand to keep increasing in the area this new transmission corridor is suppose to service. Growth that may have been unforeseen back in 2008 when the house market has crashed and new construction in that area virtually halted overnight. But then with more people ‘working form home’ in the past couple years and fleeing expensive metro areas such as Los Angles, Seattle, Chicago, New York and coming into the cheaper (comparably speaking) Phoenix metro area energy demands have sky rocketed.
  • Residential rooftop solar is helping somewhat with home owners generate their own electricity. Whatever they are not using can either be stored in a battery system for future use or (in most cases as battery systems are still quite pricey) sold and feed back to their local utility provider. While solar panel prices have come down, many home owners don’t want to be locked into a solar lease (making monthly payments on their panels which could be less or more than the money made by selling their unused energy). More so, if they plan on moving soon as they would either need to buyout the remainder of their lease before selling their house or hope they can find a buyer who is willing (and qualified) to take over the monthly lease payments.

EVs are becoming more popular and affordable (especially with government incentives) which is great as states push to eliminate the sale of ICE cars. However, EV owners who don’t own a home or live in a multifamily community without charging stations (or may only have a few for their hundreds of residents to share) or simply drive long distances in their EVs are going to need to rely on public charging stations. In the next decade there needs to be major growth to increase the supply and accessibility of public charging stations to keep up with the increased demand. But, even then EV owners need to find a charging station that is the most efficient for their EVs (charging speed). As mentioned earlier Electrify America is working to resolve some of these issues and hopes to have their expanded infrastructure in place by 2026. Hopefully too in the coming years battery technology will keep improving resulting in increased range between charging.

However, if the US Power Grid is not able to accommodate this increased demand of electricity usage being added with EV charging, EV owners are going to be struggling to keep their EVs charged. When this happens EV adaption may stall or even decline, which is going to make it more difficult for these states to meet their deadlines for banning ICE car sales. We keep hearing politicians talking about new regulations banning ICE car sales and pushing incentives (Inflation Reduction Act) to make EVs more affordable. But, yet what we don’t hear politicians talking about how are EV owners going to charge their EVs if where they live/work does not provide easy (or any) access to charging stations? Even if they do have access to charging stations, how can we ensure there is enough electricity to provide power to these charging stations…especially during extreme weather events? Better yet, how are we going to make these solutions happen sooner say next 5-years;. not 10 or 15-years down the road?