Powering Strong Communities

Zero-Emission Vehicles: As Sales Rise, So Do New Challenges

The U.S. has reached a tipping point for electric vehicle adoption, having surpassed 5% of new vehicle sales. Analysts at BloombergNEF found that EV sales in 18 countries skyrocketed after those nations reached a 5% penetration rate. In the U.S., state adoption goals may nudge the curve to move even faster. In 2022, California and New York ruled that by the end of 2035, all new car sales must be zero-emission vehicles, and other states might follow suit. This rapid adoption will bring utilities face to face with new issues to manage.

Fast Upgrades for Fast Charging

EV sales mean more electricity sales, and some utilities already face capacity constraints. One big investor-owned utility in California did a study in 2021 and found 19 megawatts of capacity constraints at that point. “It may be even worse right now,” said Bryan Jungers, director of e-mobility at E Source, a utility research organization and consultancy.

Jungers mentioned having recently spoken with someone from a small California public power utility that is looking at bringing a new transmission line across its city, a very urban environment. “It’s hugely expensive, and construction is a nightmare. It’s going to take years to do that,” Jungers noted.

Power system infrastructure could also be an issue for John Markowitz, head of e-mobility for the New York Power Authority. New York already had plans to mandate zero-emission vehicle sales by 2040, so the governor’s decision to move that up to 2035 didn’t change the utility’s planning much, Markowitz said. However, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul also issued aggressive goals for transit authorities to convert their fleets to electric buses.

“In the early transit bus depots we worked on, we were putting in the same fast chargers we would put on an interstate highway: 150 kilowatts apiece,” Markowitz said. That means a 10-bus charging depot draws 1.5 MW. “From a utility standpoint, a bus depot used to look like a small warehouse in terms of load. Now it looks like a skyscraper,” he explained.

“There will be multiple transformer upgrades needed over the next 20 years to get those bus depots to full electric, because some of them hold 250 buses or so,” he continued. Even charging buses at 75 kW per bus, which would mean keeping the bus off the streets for 12 hours, Markowitz sees the depot pulling multiple megawatts off the grid. “It raises all sorts of regulatory questions,” he said. “Do you build the huge transformer you’ll need in 2035 now or put in multiple modular transformers every few years? We’ve been doing that kind of planning.”

Making matters even more complicated for NYPA, Hochul added school buses to the zero-emission vehicle mix, mandating no more diesel bus purchases after 2027 and working toward a 100% zero-emission fleet by 2035. Unlike transit buses, which often are in urban areas, school buses may be parked in more rural sites with less infrastructure in place. “We’ve come across school bus yards that are single-phase,” Markowitz said, adding that it might be necessary to retire depots and build all new ones.

On the residential side, Markowitz also sees the potential for utilities to grapple with transformer issues. “The worry is that you’ll have one suburban cul-de-sac where one neighbor gets an EV and then everyone gets one, too. If they’re all on the same transformer, you have one hot pocket of load,” he said.

Opportunity from Efficiency

Pasadena Water and Power isn’t seeing a problem with infrastructure, and utility staff credit the city’s long-standing commitment to energy efficiency and sustainability as part of the cause. The utility has been encouraging adoption of EVs, solar, and efficiency for years, said Jonathan Sun, customer relations and programs manager for the utility, which delivers electricity to more than 65,000 customers in southern California. “The new rule in California helps us because it gives us a blueprint of where we need to be at a certain time, which allows utilities to prepare and plan accordingly,” Sun explained.

Another reason Pasadena is in good shape is because the electric load of its commercial customers has steadily decreased over the past two decades, due largely to energy efficiency efforts and behind-the-meter solar installations. “We now have added capacity on the commercial side of our networks,” said Evan Johnson, electrification program manager. “That helps us add public charging stations without a huge impact to our grid.”

Pasadena Water & Power’s five-year plan has $10 million dollars committed to public EV charging infrastructure. They have already built several large charging facilities, including the Marengo EV Charging Plaza, the largest public DC Fast Charging facility in the country that supports all three DC Fast Charging standards. It has been a learning experience, particularly on the operations side.

“We’ve been learning about the challenges of keeping these stations up and running,” Johnson said. “We found out LED screens on the stations don’t work well in the sun because the sun blanks the screen out; sometimes stickers on the charger peel off; and level 3 chargers are more repair-intensive than level 2.”

NYPA and one of the municipal utilities it serves also had some early lessons in EV charging. Specifically, Markowitz and the village of Fairport, New York, looked at what it takes to install smart chargers and put them under utility control to achieve various goals. Controlling chargers could help utilities avoid transformer overloading in areas where several neighbors have gone electric, or optimize wholesale purchases of variable generation such as solar and wind by charging when they’re available.

The pilot showed that communications technology may present some issues. “The customer’s Wi-Fi was not as reliable as having your own cellular network,” Markowitz said. “A percentage of customer devices won’t be responsive when you call on them because the customer bought a new router or something, and they fell off the network.” Despite problems, the pilot proved managed charging can achieve utility goals without customer disruption. “The project was an exercise to learn the skill of deploying this technology,” he added.

Learning Curves for All

Jungers has already coached quite a few utilities on zero-emission vehicle readiness in his role as an E Source consultant. One of the chief lessons he thinks utilities should learn is how to make sure they’re involved in regulatory proceedings and rulemaking.

When he first started talking to the California Transportation Commission about Senate Bill 671 — a bill that creates a clean freight corridor to support zero-emission trucks — he said CTC staff knew little about how utilities operate. “They did not know what’s required for a new substation to be installed or for a line extension to power a new truck-charging depot,” Jungers explained. “Utilities need to be at the table when rulemaking is taking place.”

Jungers also thinks many utilities are missing an opportunity to support customers with fleet advisory services. “Help customers understand differences in vehicles and charging equipment. Help them upgrade their facilities, plan which vehicles to replace first and find financial incentives. I think utilities that don’t have a fleet advisory service yet will be blown away to find out how many customers are ready and interested in working with them,” he said.

Utilities aren’t the only ones that have a learning curve. So do consumers and business customers. “It’s really about customer education and outreach, especially for our disadvantaged communities,” Sun said. “Leverage grassroots organizations and work with community groups to make sure people know what benefits [zero-emission vehicles] deliver and how they can be part of the solution.”

Education will be important when utilities go to customers and ask them to engage in load shifting, he noted. Through the Renewable Portfolio Standard, California’s goal requires all of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free resources by 2045. As a result, utilities benefit when people charge cars during times when renewables are more abundant, or late at night when the electric grid has a lot of capacity, Sun said.

That’s going to take some explaining, Johnson added, and he should know. Having come from the transportation sector before he joined Pasadena Water and Power, he’d never heard of load shifting. “People don’t have a great understanding of how the grid works. Education outreach is key,” he said.

People also don’t really understand charging itself all that well, according to recent research conducted by E Source for the state of Colorado. The study found that 54% of survey respondents didn’t realize they could charge an EV from a standard three-prong wall outlet.

Fortunately, there’s still time for the outreach needed, even with the ambitious zero-emission vehicle plans in California and New York. Jungers points out that just because states enact aspirational EV adoption rules, it doesn’t mean they’ll keep those rules intact. He recalls the automaker pushback that California faced with its first EV mandate. “The lobbyists eventually won, and California changed that mandate several times over the years,” he said.

Likewise, Georgia leaders wanted to support EV adoption more than a decade ago, so that state embraced generous incentives for buyers. “For a while, Georgia had the biggest per-capita growth rate of electric vehicle adoption in the country,” Jungers recalled. “Then the incentives went away, and adoption dropped to almost zero.”

The lesson from these two states’ experience is that mandates and incentives don’t always stand still. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly what impact these rulings will have based on how the industry responds,” Jungers said.