A Shock to the System: the Need for Planning Around Electric Vehicles

Realizing the transition to an EV future will require a major investment of time and resources

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It should have come as a surprise to no one. A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailed how PJM, the country's largest grid operator, "is so clogged with requests from energy developers seeking connections to its regional transmission network in the eastern United States that it is proposing a two-year pause on reviewing more than 1,200 energy projects, most of them solar power."

As the country looks forward to mass electrification, it cannot afford this kind of bottleneck with the grid. This problem becomes especially acute when you consider EVs.

Electric cars are here. Perhaps you even own a Tesla. EVs are on the road, but the infrastructure to support their mass adoption is, it seems, nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I predict the country is still a solid decade away from this presenting a major problem: even if every new vehicle were electric tomorrow, it would take ten years for gas-powered vehicles to be replaced.

Although many speak breathlessly about EVs' potential to offset carbon emissions, the numbers point to a slow transition. The U.S. has about 276 million cars. Every year, about 15 million are scrapped and 17 million new vehicles are purchased, so that number doesn't move the needle — and the chance of a mandate that all vehicles be EV is slim to none, given our political climate.

While leaders — both in the private sector and in government — need to accept that it's going to be a slow transition to EVs' mass adoption, this isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's critical that they take advantage of this built-in time to think strategically about ideal implementation. I believe if they plan well enough right now, they can in fact accelerate the emergence of an infrastructure built around EVs. In considering this multifaceted issue and its wide-reaching implications, they need to make sure they pay special attention to how this massive change is implemented, as it will impact everyone. Right now, there is a tremendous chance to get this transition right, and collectively, we shouldn't let it slip away.

While there's no historical analog for this transition, you can look to certain parallel examples for cues. For instance, Hawaii can serve as a cautionary tale, as can the bottleneck at PJM. Both of these situations stem from what historian Barbara Tuchman once described as "wooden-headedness" — the inability to prepare for the future because of a refusal to think in a new paradigm. There is a human tendency to lead from behind, but, with EVs, there is the opportunity to avoid this wooden-headedness: everyone can see it coming, and leaders have the time to get it right.

Realizing the transition to an EV future will require a major investment of time and resources: building enough charging stations alone will have costs in the billions, and you also need the infrastructure to support them. To make this possible, the country needs to start seeing significant public and private sector collaboration, especially in the regulatory sector. This is imperative to address issues of equality, since investments made in the grid have to be paid for by everybody. It will be important to ensure that everyone is benefitting from these changes equally.

You can already see issues of equity in the way EVs are presently used in the country.

As William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." Right now, 42% of EVs are registered in California, and those who use them there are generally concentrated in affluent ZIP codes, with public charging stations located at high-end stores like Whole Foods. If EVs continue to roll out organically without planning, there is a risk of recreating the same mistakes made with solar adoption.

In places like California and Florida with solar subsidies, you essentially had lower-income utility customers paying for rich folks' rooftop panels, which has led to many wanting to undo incentives. While an update to the grid is essential to facilitate mass EV adoption, it's important to ensure that funds going to the infrastructure still make sense for those not driving Teslas and that it's not only the wealthiest citizens who benefit.

Yet leaders can leverage early adopters — read: Tesla drivers — in planning out a robust and functional grid that serves everyone. EVs in and of themselves serve as storage points for energy, and the endpoint of the grid is at home in the garage, where people will be charging their cars. In fact, studies have shown ways in which at-home charging stations can help strengthen the grid as a whole. So while the rollout of who buys EVs first might be unequally distributed, it is possible to intentionally plan high-quality service in a way that takes down barriers and ensures equitable treatment, ensuring people aren't paying for something they aren't going to use and that will never benefit them personally.

Leaders can get ahead of a true quagmire by planning — and they should. They can only make the most of electrification if they ensure its rollout provides for an infrastructure that makes sense and serves all tiers of society. It's important for leaders and stakeholders to band together to make this transition happen correctly, effectively and equitably. This means thinking about cost planning on the distribution side as much as it does rethinking meaningful public-private partnerships that drive both sides of that equation to do better. If together those involved fail to do so, they will have missed a singular chance not only to rewire the way utilities serve the population but also to save the planet for future generations.

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