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Can America’s power grid support millions of electric cars?


There’s little doubt that a global technology revolution is under way. And the sweep of change over the past decade alone has been stunning. Electric cars and smart phones are proving that the world has gone high-tech.

Many analysts now believe that a “deep electrification” of the U.S. economy is coming, too, thanks to electric cars, electric buses, and high-speed rail. This electrification could also transform both homes and heavy industry through advances in heat pumps and on-demand water heaters. But all of it will mean a large increase in electricity needs, and it’s important to start planning now to ensure future power grid reliability.

Terry Jarrett

Terry Jarrett

In 2016, there were 567,000 electric vehicles on the road. But thanks to an electric vehicle boom, that number may reach a whopping 7 million cars by 2025. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, electric vehicles could account for up to 76 percent of vehicle-miles traveled by 2050, which would drive a 38 percent increase in U.S. electricity needs.

It’s not just electric cars, though. There’s also the massive power demands needed for the data centers that create, transport, and store virtual information. All of this suggests a huge shift in how Americans will consume electricity. And while electricity consumption has been fairly stable in recent years, a move toward deep electrification could send demand climbing.

Is the U.S. power grid prepared for such an increase? Unfortunately not. That’s because, even as a surge in demand looms ahead, the nation has been losing key sources of baseload power that currently anchor much of the overall electric grid. And part of the problem stems from heavy subsidization of wind and solar projects that currently deliver only 7.6 percent of U.S. electricity.

Since 2010, more than 600 coal plants in 43 states have been retired or scheduled for retirement. The nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear plants is in trouble, too. Nearly half of all U.S. reactors are facing financial pressure, and operating plants have already been decommissioned.

A shift toward natural gas-fired electricity has also hit stumbling blocks. While utilities have added new natural gas plants, construction of new gas pipelines has become increasingly difficult. Simply put, the ability to deliver more natural gas isn’t keeping up with rising demand.

America’s coal and nuclear power plants have long provided reliable, essential electricity. But unless action is taken to preserve their non-stop baseload electricity, the U.S. could lose generating capacity at precisely the time when demand is increasing. And once these plants close, there’s no bringing them back.

Electric cars are undoubtedly coming, and a new electric age is on the horizon. Meeting this increased electricity demand will be no simple feat, though. America’s power grid will be pushed to the max. What’s needed is a balanced, diverse electricity mix that incorporates coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar in the most efficient means possible. To prepare for tomorrow’s challenges, it’s critical to start planning today.

Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.


  1. Whats the point of electric cars if we just continue to use fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are porjected to run out in the near not the far future. In my opinion I believe they should focus on renewable energy sources.

  2. Daniel, the end of fossil fuel availability has been predicted for decades now. In the 1970s it was thought that we had reached “peak oil,” the point at which new discoveries and the overall supply would begin dropping until it was exhausted. It turns out such predictions were wrong. New technologies along with the discovery of new deposits has drastically increased estimates of the remaining resources. We are nowhere near the end of fossil fuel supplies.

    That said, your point about electric cars is valid. A few years ago I read an analysis that found that if all of the vehicles in California were electric tomorrow, the overall level of pollutants released into the air would be nearly unchanged as powerplants burning coal and other fossil fuels would have to increase production substantially to meet the demand.

    As pointed out by the author, renewable sources still suffer from high cost and cannot reach the level of reliability needed to replace traditional fuel sources. The cleanest short term solution is to follow France’s lead and increase investment in nuclear power.

    When people think of nuclear power they remember terrible meltdowns such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They fear dangerous by-products that nobody wants disposed-of in their back yards. But our thinking on the topic is stuck in 1970s technology when the U.S. basically quit designing any new plants. The French derive 80% of their nation’s power from nuclear plants that are designed to fail safely—they cannot melt down catastrophically when a failure happens due to the way the power extraction and cooling systems are designed. Their modern reactors are capable of recycling their own nuclear waste products, drastically reducing the problem of waste disposal.

    Perhaps one day an array of enormous solar energy collection satellites will orbit the earth and beam continuous power to receiving stations on the ground. In the meantime, if we can get past our antiquated notions, modern nuclear technology is a dramatically better short-term alternative to burning dead dinosaurs.

  3. Renewable energy (wind and solar) is now competitive with coal and natural gas and is getting cheaper by the day. Incentives for renewables have helped these technologies scale up to the point where the incentives are no longer needed -and can be ended. (We should also end tax subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuels.) At times, California has too much energy due to solar peaks and this trend will continue to grow. Battery storage is getting cheaper as it scales up just as wind and solar have done. Eventually, renewable energy will be so abundant and produce so much energy that energy will be nearly free. This will kill the internal combustion engine.
    I have enough solar on my house to power my house and electric car. This will become increasingly common. Eventually, batteries will reach the scale that efficiencies and price make it feasible for me to add battery backup- and at that point, this will also be a national trend.

  4. Terry:

    There are HEVs, BEVs, and PHEVs. The only true EV’s are BEV’s because HEV’s and PHEV’s both include internal combustion engines.

    For more information: http://ddears.com/2018/10/12/electric-vehicle-status-report-9-months-2018/

    As for electrification of buildings; that’s crony environmentalism. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Our economy will appreciate it.

  5. @Mike Budig
    Great to hear about your solar array. The world doesn’t have that right now and the world won’t have that in 2019. Last I checked solar was about 1.5% of electricity globally and about 0.4% of total energy consumption. Where do you recommend we get the other 99.6% of our energy next year?

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