Is the U.S. power grid ready for electrification?

April 29, 2024
The U.S. power grid is outdated and overburdened—it needs upgrades and expansion to support the transition to commercial electric vehicles.

Video by Endeavor Plugged-In

If hype and hope generated a steady flow of electrons, the transition to commercial electric vehicles would be much more straightforward. As it stands, however, the U.S. power grid is outdated and overburdened, and upgrades will require coordination and cooperation from hundreds of utilities, their regulators, and their customers.

Most critically, upgrades and expansion will take time. That’s the takeaway from the latest Endeavor Plugged-In, a monthly podcast about the state of the EV sector. This edition ponders the question of grid readiness.

“When we're looking at the grid and trying to identify if it's at a healthy spot for new EV demand, honestly, no—but that doesn't mean that it's a hopeless situation,” Breanna Sandridge, senior editor with EBM titles Energy Tech and Microgrid Knowledge, said. “When it comes to the grid, we need to start thinking of it as a resource with somewhat limited capabilities. It's something very critical to the way that we do business and the way that we live and operate our lives. We have to think of ourselves as working in tandem with the grid.”

She emphasized that the EV transition is just part of the anticipated surge in electricity demand, with growing needs ranging from consumer-level electronics to critical infrastructure like hospitals and the data centers that serve an increasingly connected world—to say nothing of the anticipated power needs of the coming AI revolution.

And, rather than worrying about whether the grid can meet one’s energy needs, electricity suppliers and users should first look for alternatives to tapping into the network.

“We need to be very intentional with the way that we build our new electric systems. So when we’re building our chargers, we need to be asking ourselves, ‘is there any way that we can take off some of the burden from the grid?’” she suggested. “So not only does that take the burden off, but it also provides us with a little bit of independence—knowing that if something were to happen, we can continue to operate.”

Shoring up

Jeff Postelwait, senior editor at T&D World, likewise, doesn’t think the grid is ready for EVs.

“Frankly, no. In a lot of cases, service interruptions and blackouts are on the rise. Transmission congestion is a problem. And it's difficult to get new grid resources built,” he said. “There is a lot that we can do in the meantime to shore things up at the margins: better energy efficiency, or introducing some grid upgrades here and there. But fine-tuning only goes so far; a big surge in power demand would be ill-timed right now.”

The good news: Utilities are “very good at collaborating,” Postelwait added. He’s also optimistic about new companies with promising concepts and technology coming into the charging space.

“Some interesting startups are doing a lot of interesting projects,” he said. “My colleagues and I sometimes get skeptical about startups; some of them seem fly-by-night or they seem like just some guy in a turtleneck who talked some people into giving him a million dollars. 

“But some of these people actually have boots on the ground, shovels in the dirt—they're doing things. And I think those are the sort of laboratories that will be interesting to watch.”

Overpromised, underdelivered

Of course, the commercial EV space has its share of startups, several of which have become famous—or infamous—for outlandish valuations. There’s a lot of overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to electric trucks.

Meanwhile, the established truck OEMs keep plugging away, so to speak, essentially reimagining their business model to support their customers’ many new challenges during the EV transition. (While also building the ever-more-efficient ICE vehicles that are still the backbone of the U.S. economy, I might add.)

Discussing the needs and expectations of the commercial transportation sector was my small part in the discussion. Basically, I didn’t say anything readers of FleetOwner or Fleet Maintenance haven’t seen on our pages before: No juice, no EVs—period. Pretty much everything else is whether or not mandates might or should be more aggressive than the market can support.

The bottom line, in terms of the grid: A truck stop supporting commercial EVs will have the power demand of a small town. And consider all the places where three or more truck stops are clustered together on a major freight corridor.

Festina lente

Recalling a conversation at a T&D World Live event, Postelwaite explained the topic was the many, many hurdles standing in the way of sweeping updates to the U.S. power grid. Someone then noted that China and India were already undertaking such projects. “Maybe this is a ‘you’ problem,” the person commented.

“We do need power investment—there just isn't any way around it,” Postelwait said. “There's no software or solution that's going to take the place of a grid that's too old or too damaged or too stressed out to operate—not when you're talking about gigawatts of electricity. We need smart energy policy that isn't one size fits all.”

And we needed it yesterday.

“A big, unanswered question here is: How fast is this transition going to take place? Is it going to be years, decades? Is it going to stretch out into the rest of the century?” Postelwait suggested. “I think it's going to depend on where you live in the world, but it's not going to be uniform by any means.”

But, again, the key to long-term success will be to work smart. Or, to borrow some Latin: Festina lente, meaning “make haste slowly.”

“It's really about looking at it from a holistic point of view, and how can we help each other?” Sandridge concluded. “Because at the end of the day, this is a system that all of us rely on, and we're all counting on it to be as strong and formidable as possible.”

Looking for regular updates on the EV transition from a variety of perspectives? EBM’s Market Moves EV newsletter is your source for news from several industry verticals. Sign up here.

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor

Kevin has served as editor-in-chief of Trailer/Body Builders magazine since 2017—just the third editor in the magazine’s 60 years. He is also editorial director for Endeavor Business Media’s Commercial Vehicle group, which includes FleetOwner, Bulk Transporter, Refrigerated Transporter, American Trucker, and Fleet Maintenance magazines and websites.

Working from Little Rock, Kevin has covered trucking and manufacturing for 15 years. His writing and commentary about the trucking industry and, previously, business and government, has been recognized with numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards.

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