With the fallout and toll of the recent Texas power outage still unfolding, the instability of our nation’s electric grid is front of mind for many citizens. For Ohio residents, this threat of a widescale, long-lasting power outage may seem too far from home to warrant serious concern. Indeed, Midwest grid operators are well prepared for the kind of winter weather conditions that factored into the Texas outage, and the Ohio grid is tied to the Eastern Interconnection, which covers electricity supply ranging from the Rockies to Florida, the Atlantic coast to Central-East Canada. Texas, on the other hand, operates on its own isolated statewide grid—the insularity of which may have hindered its ability to receive help from out-of-state utilities.

And yet, we would do well to remember that the largest power blackout in US history, and the third-largest in the world—leaving 50 million people across eight states without power for two days—started right here, in Ohio, less than twenty years ago in 2003. The vulnerability of the electric grid is a ubiquitous problem, especially as climate change increases the frequency and severity of winter storms, heat waves, and hurricanes. 

Coming up with ways to buoy grid resiliency and decrease the chances of long-lasting and widespread power outages is as important in Ohio as it is in Texas. One solution comes from an unlikely source: electric vehicles (EVs).

How EVs Can Improve Grid Resiliency

While some speculate that large-scale adoption of EVs could overburden the electric grid, the reality is quite the opposite. As Gretchen Bakke, a researcher of America’s electric grid, puts it in her book The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, “Many people who care about grid reform don’t see electric cars as cars so much as great big batteries on wheels.”

With bi-directional charging infrastructure, also known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G), EV batteries can conveniently be hooked up to the power supply. This allows them to serve as mobile, mini-generators during times of peak energy demand. This approach fits with natural charging cycles. People tend to charge their EVs overnight, during low demand, and leave them unused and available for discharging onto the grid in the late afternoon and evening when demand is high.

Grid resiliency is the ability of electricity infrastructure to react to and minimize the consequences of unforeseen events, such as abnormally high demand, natural disasters, or infrastructure damage. When we think of EVs as “great big batteries on wheels,” the grid is no longer static. Power plants, transformers, and distribution lines are unmoving. The infrastructure operates in one place and adapting them is a timely, and often costly, process. However, when we consider electric cars, trucks, and buses as an extension of electricity infrastructure, the grid becomes flexible, and more responsive to local needs.

In the future, autonomous electric vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) power-sharing, and vehicle-to-everything connectivity (V2X) could take grid resiliency even further. Connected vehicles, charging infrastructure, buildings, grids, and renewable generation could make electric power storage and supply even more distributed and on-demand.

How EVs Help the Grid, Even Today

While there are exciting and fast-moving advancements in bi-directional chargers, currently most electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) is one-way, from electricity supply to vehicle battery. However, EVs are still providing benefits to today’s electricity providers and ratepayers.

85% of EV charging happens at home, with most people plugging in overnight. EV drivers can schedule their charging sessions to happen during off-peak hours and shift their consumption. Time-of-use rates can further incentivize EV drivers to shift their charging by tying electricity rates to the time it is used. 

Off-peak charging habits help flatten the electricity demand curve for everyone. A more consistent and predictable demand curve improves generation efficiency and costs for everyone, not just EV drivers.

Even without time-of-use rates, EVs have shown to put downward pressure on electricity rates. A recent study of two utility service territories with the most registered EVs has shown that EV drivers pay more in utility bills than it costs the utility to provide power for their charging sessions. This means that there is very little cost to the utility to provide EV charging. EV drivers and their charging sessions actually generate net-revenue to the utility, and this benefit can be shared by non-EV drivers in the form of lower utility bills.

The study, which looked at California utilities Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric found that EV drivers have contributed more than $800 million between 2012 and 2019.

An analysis found that EVs in Minnesota could generate more than $10.2 Billion in utility bill savings by 2050, if the state hits their climate goal of 5.8 million EVs on the road by the same year.

When it comes to climate goals, in addition to eliminating tailpipe emissions, EVs also make it easier to incorporate renewable energy into our electric supply mix. EV batteries can supplement supply when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing. And, more topically, EV batteries can serve as local power generators during climate emergencies like what we saw in Texas.

EVs During Climate Emergencies

When an extreme cold snap hit Texas in February, one resident was able to utilize his Powerboost Ford F150 Hybrid as a power supply. He was able to connect the hybrid’s onboard generator to his family’s lights, space heater, and refrigerator during the unexpected winter weather that left millions without power. After this story went viral on social media, Ford sent word to Texas dealerships to dispatch all available Powerboost F150s to emergency response efforts. Over 400 trucks helped provide power and heat to communities across the state.

While the F150 is still an internal hybrid, future all-electric pickups will have similar capabilities. This emergency use case of EVs should be of interest to rural and urban communities alike, especially when considering the size and power capability of medium and heavy-duty vehicles, such as eBuses, which can transport people, supplies, and power during response efforts.

These capabilities are not relegated to large vehicles alone. In 2011, when a back-to-back earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan, Nissan sent 66 all-electric LEAFs to power areas in need.

With rapid advancements in battery technology, EVs will have more and more potential – not just for range and performance, but for generation and storage as well. Today’s LEAF, with a 62 kWh battery, could power a home for 4 days, charge over 6,000 cell phones, or run 100+ elevator trips for a high-rise apartment building.

Ensuring Equity in Electrification and Resiliency

While V2G charging technology and its implications are exciting, it is vital that the resiliency and grid benefits of electrifying transportation are shared by all.

Urban and coastal communities are piloting and beginning to implement this technology now, but our communities cannot wait decades for this technology to reach them, as has historically been the case with the adoption of electricity and broadband internet.

While most cities and towns in the United States had electricity by the 1920s, only 10% of rural America had electric power in the 1930s when the Rural Electrification Act was passed. It would be another 20 years before electricity became widely available in rural homes and businesses. Today, we see a similar ‘digital divide’ in terms of access to the internet. In urban communities, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed internet. Only 65% of rural Americans have access, while on Tribal lands it is only 60% of residents. Currently, there are nearly 30 million Americans who cannot use the internet to support their education, careers, or homes. For EVs to meaningfully enhance grid resiliency, their adoption, and the infrastructure to support them, must be shared equitably among all communities. Ensuring equitable access to transportation electrification means prioritizing those communities that have been historically underserved by technology and innovation.

 EV Adoption as Resiliency Planning 

Recently, we have seen the urgent need for grid and climate resiliency plans. America’s electric grid infrastructure is aging, 10-20 years past its prime in some places. Electric vehicles won’t worsen this issue, they actually ease the burden on the grid, provide emergency solutions, and assist in developing new, clean-energy electricity solutions that benefit all people in the United States.  

Clean Fuels Ohio and Drive Electric Ohio are committed to centering underserved communities and equitably advancing the development of EV infrastructure in rural and urban Ohio. For more information on these efforts and how you can get involved with our EV Stakeholder Committee and EVSE Planning working group, please contact [email protected].