How an Upcoming Surge of Electric Cars Will Affect Utility Companies

Natalie Josef
November 22, 2010

Next month, the nation’s first mass-market electric cars will go on sale and while utility companies are happy for the revenue this will bring, they are also concerned about the impact it will have on the demand for electricity.

When plugged into a standard 120-volt socket, an electric car can draw as much power as a small house. Some electric cars, like the first Nisssan Leafs and Chevy Volts set to be released in December 2010, will draw about 3,300 watts—for comparison, a microwave can draw about 1,000 watts. But Chevy and Nissan would like to boost that to 6,600 watts soon, so that the cars can charge faster. The Tesla Roadster can draw about 16,800 watts, which is the equivalent of 280 60-watt light bulbs.

This may not sound like a big deal, but things could get quickly out of hand. Let’s say you come home from work on a cold, winter day and crank up the heat when you walk in the door. And then you throw some dinner in the microwave, turn on your huge TV, and plug your car into a home charging station. Now, let’s say that five more people in your neighborhood are doing the same thing—and ten more people in the neighborhood down the road, and so on.

This extra stress on a transformer, which distributes power from the electrical grid to homes in the area, can cause the transformer to overheat and fail, which can knock out power to the block and the surrounding area. If an electric car is plugged into a standard socket, it puts less stress on the transformer, but can trip a circuit breaker if the circuit is serving other appliances.

In order to be prepared for the predicted onslaught of electric cars, utility companies are working with car manufacturers, doing customer surveys, and looking at where people have bought hybrids, thinking they might also be the ones to buy electric cars. Currently, the predicted areas for electric car buying are parts of California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. The experts are also expecting electric car buying in areas where subsidies are offered at the state and local level, the weather is mild, and places where people have high incomes and are environmentally conscious.

Not since air conditioning have power companies faced such a potential explosion in demand for electricity. So while they are hungry for the profits their companies can make, they are also worried about how this surge will affect their equipment and customer service. According to Duke Energy’s Mike Rowand, "It's like you're about to have a baby. You know it's going to be good, but you also know there's going to be some throw up and some dirty diapers, and you just hope that it's something you are prepared for."

If you are planning to get an electric vehicle, the best advice now is to program the vehicle to charge late at night when you are not using other appliances and the rates are lower. Working with their local energy companies, local governments are also installing public charging stations—which is also cheaper. South Carolina’s state Energy Office estimates charging an electric car is the equivalent of paying between 25 cents and 50 cents a gallon for gas.

Anytime a big change happens, there will be problems, but the advantages—for the consumer and the environment—of having electric cars is well worth a couple of hiccups along the road.


Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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