The grid isn’t ready for the EV boom. Can better data fix that?

Utilities lack the necessary data to plan ahead for the coming influx of EV charging. A new data-sharing consortium could help them overcome that obstacle.
By Jeff St. John

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hand with charger, large trucks in the background
(Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Utilities are at risk of falling behind on the grid upgrades necessary to deal with the electric vehicle revolution. More EVs mean much more electricity demand, and if utilities don’t plan and build ahead of that growth, they risk creating years-long grid-upgrade backlogs that could leave EV-charging stations stranded without power.

Britta Gross, transportation director at the nonprofit power-sector research group Electric Power Research Institute, says that more data on the planned locations of EV-charging stations is the key to unlocking utility investment sooner rather than later — and that a new nationwide initiative launched today can supply it.

The collaboration, dubbed EVs2Scale2030, brings together EPRI, utilities, major EV truck manufacturers, government agencies and regulators to collect data on expected future EV-charging deployments across the country. The goal is to help utilities plan and proactively build the grid upgrades needed to serve that charging before it overwhelms them.

The load is big — but it can be accommodated if we have more early notice,” Gross said. 

The consortium’s work is part of a broader Biden administration effort, announced in April, to ensure the U.S. has enough charging capacity to serve what the U.S. Department of Energy says could be 30 million to 42 million passenger EVs on the road by 2030, compared to about 1.7 million today.

While DOE has forecasted that the U.S. will have enough generating capacity to meet the increase in electricity demand these EVs will create, the distribution grid remains a weak link. A 2019 report from Boston Consulting Group predicted that by 2030 utilities may need to spend between $1,700 and $5,800 per EV to upgrade things like the power lines, transformers and substations that bring power to customers. 

A major barrier holding utilities and regulators back from solving this problem is a lack of reliable, long-term data about where EV-charging stations will be, said Gross, who spent nearly two decades directing advanced vehicles commercialization policy at General Motors. Broad EV-charging demand forecasts at the national, state, county or even census-tract level don’t cut it. Instead, we need much more granular information so we can inform the utility industry at a much more granular level — a level you can invest on,” Gross said.

And because it takes a lot longer for utilities to plan and execute big upgrades than it takes to get a car delivered to your driveway or a truck delivered to your fleet depot,” the data has to look at where new EV-charging loads are going to appear well ahead of when that infrastructure is needed — not six months from now, but years in advance, she said. 

EVs2Scale is about building the tools we need to get it in place.” 

Why the EV revolution needs a grid that’s planned ahead of time

States with the most EVs today are already struggling to accommodate large-scale charging loads on congested grids — and these constraints will only become a bigger problem as the number of EVs grows, Gross said. California, the country’s leader in EV adoption, may need to spend $30 billion to $50 billion on grid upgrades over the next 12 years to accommodate its EV growth plans.

Charging for heavy-duty EVs like trucks and buses is even more challenging to accommodate on the distribution grid since they require far more power in concentrated locations. 

We’re already seeing pain points at a fleet level,” Gross said, with some electric truck buyers being told by utilities that grid upgrades to support their multi-megawatt charging needs will be 18 months from now, or two years or four years, depending on the nature of the upgrade required or the headroom on that feeder.” 

The new consortium is collecting data from electric truck makers Daimler, Volvo and Paccar, as well as electric school bus data from the nonprofit World Resources Institute, Gross said. It has landed Amazon, which has big EV ambitions, as a member. And it’s seeking the participation of more EV manufacturers and fleet operators, as well as the companies developing charging sites across the country. 

Its advisory board includes representatives from the federal program managing $7.5 billion in public EV-charging grants, state utility regulators, and utility trade groups, as well as 10 of the country’s largest public and investor-owned utilities.

In order to upgrade distribution grids to handle new charging loads, utilities will have to convince regulators that the value will be worth the cost, which will be passed on to customers via increases to their monthly bills. In some cases, bringing new charging stations online could increase electricity sales more than enough to make up for the grid costs, but that won’t always be the case.

The public does benefit from EV charging infrastructure. Even people who don’t drive EVs themselves will be better off if there’s reduced air pollution and reduced carbon emissions.

But regulators might decide there’s not enough public benefit from local grid upgrades that would serve individual customers or commercial fleet owners wanting to install EV chargers. That could lead to utilities and regulators arguing over who’s responsible for covering the costs, triggering delays that could put the brakes on EV growth. 

Data on future EV-charging needs could give utilities and regulators the information they need to determine which grid expansions are good investments and which aren’t, Gross said. The data is the convincer. It’s what we need to get in front of them.”

Using data to predict the future grid needs for EV charging 

EPRI aims to help alleviate this data issue with its forthcoming eRoadMAP planning tool. This interactive mapping platform will provide utilities with data from truck manufacturers, fleet operators, charging providers and government agencies on where new EVs are being sold and where new charging is being planned.

That’s a picture, in red, yellow and green, of what’s coming at us,” Gross said. The scope of this data currently extends from near-term out through 2025, and will expand further into the future as more participants join, she said.

Some of this data is currently public but not previously mapped at the level of geographic granularity that utilities need to correlate to their distribution-grid mapping tools. At the same time, much of the data that EPRI is seeking will come from the private sector — including some that are closely held by the companies providing it.

Many companies are competing to find charging sites with the right combination of open land, proximity to major transport corridors and available grid capacity, Gross noted. Those companies — which include public EV-charging providers like Electrify America, EVgo and Tesla; EV-charging startups like Forum Mobility, WattEV, Zeem and Terawatt Infrastructure; and joint ventures featuring major auto manufacturers, freight haulers and warehouse operators, and utilities, truck manufacturers and private equity firms — have good reason to hide their plans from competitors.

To solve this problem, EPRI has developed its GridFAST tool, she said. The online platform will support a secure and private exchange” between utilities seeking data on where EVs and chargers are being planned and the companies and agencies providing it, she said. The system will aggregate in an anonymized way up to a feeder point, where utilities can act and invest, but not too granular to a street address level so you know whose driveway it is.” Nor will individual companies be able to access data from other companies, she said.

The more data eRoadMAP has, the more useful it will be to utilities and their regulators as they try to make investments in the right places, Gross said.

There’s no guarantee that any single planned EV-charging installation will end up coming to fruition. But if large numbers of planned deployments are clustered in a particular local grid area, the likelihood of at least some of them being built can give utilities and regulators a much higher level of confidence” that grid investments to serve them are justified.

Delays in grid upgrades and interconnection have become a growing concern for EV manufacturers and charging developers. Some are turning to batteries, solar power and other on-site generation resources as stopgap measures to provide the power that existing grid interconnections can’t.

Most of the time we think about infrastructure too late in this industry,” said Henrik Holland, head of Prologis Mobility, the truck-fleet-electrification arm of global warehouse facility giant Prologis. The company, which has opened large-scale charging sites in Southern California and has 65 more planned across the country, is also offering mobile generator systems for customers that lack the grid capacity to charge the EVs they’ve received.

Prologis Mobility, like many other charging developers, is working closely with utilities to seek out sites with ample grid capacity in an attempt to avoid bottlenecks. In the logistics hub of Southern California’s Inland Empire, our team can point to a transformer and say, that’s at 50 percent capacity’ or that’s getting close to full capacity,’” Holland said. 

Getting data on EVs has become an essential part of a utility’s planning, said Brett Carter, chair of EVs2Scale2030 and group president of utilities at Xcel Energy, which serves large swathes of Colorado and Minnesota and parts of six other states. 

Say a rental car company wants to turn around an EV in 20 minutes for the next customer,” he said. That’s going to take a DC fast charger. And you take four of those charging at the same time, they can pull a megawatt of charging from the grid.” 

Xcel expects EVs to make up one in five vehicles across its service territory by 2030. We want our partners to give us as much information as possible” so we can prepare for the grid impacts to come, he said. We’re giving them all the information we have.”

Xcel, which plans to achieve 85 percent carbon-free energy by 2030, has a transportation strategy that calls for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on incentives for EV chargers in Colorado and Minnesota. But it also includes more controversial plans to build, own and operate fast-charging sites that have sparked pushback from regulators and private-sector charging providers that see it as unfair competition. 

Carter acknowledged that utilities need to win the trust of EV-charging providers to get them to share their forecasts of where they plan to build next. That’s where you start to talk about signing NDAs,” or non-disclosure agreements, he said — an already common feature of how utilities work with other competitive industries like data centers to prepare for big new demands on their grids. 

At the same time, I think that as long as we’re not taking away their competitive advantage, they’re willing to share,” he said. The sooner we can get in front of this, the better off we’ll all be.”

Gross emphasized that the consortium is seeking the participation of major EV-charging developers in hopes of playing a role as a trusted intermediary” between them and utilities. 

They are very stressed trying to get DC fast-charging stations in the ground, and facing this challenge of long lead times,” but they’re also leery of sharing data, she noted. In that sense, they face a choice: You can sit on that data, and not put it into an anonymized, aggregated system. But then, you’re not getting your load into a system that’s addressing the issue of getting your lead time.” 

Maintaining confidentiality will be a priority for the coalition, Gross said. At its core, it’s the trusting relationship between manufacturers, fleet operators, fueling retailers and the utility industry,” she said. Can we have these conversations three years in advance, four years in advance, not four months in advance, when your trucks are already set to arrive?” 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.