DETROIT—Since the earliest days of the industry, when gasoline was sold in small batches by pharmacists, generations of auto dealers rarely have had to worry about how their customers planned to refuel the vehicles they bought.
Pumps are everywhere. But plugs? Not so much—not yet.
As auto makers jostle to impress Wall Street investors with their latest electrification plans, dealers have to ask: Is a grid that already strains in some areas to keep up with air conditioners and bad weather suddenly going to be able to reliably juice up millions of new vehicles? John Luciano, a Volkswagen and Toyota dealer in Amarillo, Texas, said: "I know the guys in California and some of the others that are really selling a ton of EVs are starting to get concerned."
In all likelihood, the grid can handle it—but it depends largely on how closely you look. While the U.S. is not expected to have a problem keeping up with added demand for energy generation over the next three decades, delivering those electrons effectively to homes, businesses and public spaces via chargers and properly wired buildings is a significant logistical hurdle.
"Over time, utilities will be able to support the increase in demand that EVs will put on the grid—but the key words there are 'over time,' " explains David Reuter, an auto industry veteran who now is chief communications officer for NextEra Energy, the nation's largest utility company and parent of Florida Power & Light.
While Reuter said that utility companies have ample power and infrastructure to service EVs at current growth rates, he notes that it "took many decades" to build out the current U.S. gasoline and diesel fueling infrastructure.
"I think you're going to see a lot of the same take place as EVs start to take over a larger part of the car park nationally," said the former Ford Motor Co. executive, "and as the increase in EVs comes in, there will be changes in the grid and infrastructure needs to support it."
He's backed up in his assessment by Matteo Muratori, senior engineer and team lead at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"In some instances, system upgrades will be necessary—new transformers, etc.—similar to what happens when new construction occurs and electricity loads are added to the system," Muratori told Automotive News. But, he added, while those utility upgrade costs are likely to be broadly passed on to ratepayers, as a whole, the U.S. grid system is well positioned to absorb significantly more EVs than are now on offer.
Legacy automakers and their upstart brethren have product plans for scores of battery-electric vehicles over the next several years, as well as large numbers of plug-in electric hybrids that rely on batteries to power short-range trips that make up most daily travel. Whether those nameplates translate to actual buyers willing to put them on the road is an all-consuming, multibillion-dollar question in the auto and power industries, both of which have been preparing for the transition for several years.
For most people in the U.S., electricity is such a ubiquitous part of the background of daily life that it only ever enters our thoughts when it becomes unavailable—as was the case last winter for many residents in Texas during an extended cold snap. But the system that Americans rely on for their electricity is complex and highly regulated—at least outside of Texas—and rapidly evolving.