If you’re to believe the headlines, you’d be under the impression that consumer demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is slowing. Cratering even. But in reality, EV sales have never been higher. Literally. The Q3 2023 numbers are in, and September was the biggest month for EV sales in the U.S. ever. And this isn’t a blip. The industry is up around 50% year-over-year, and it is estimated (with final projections still pending) that, for the first time ever, Americans purchased 1 million EVs during the 2023 calendar year, surpassing 11% of new car sales.
Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be a perfectly smooth transition for automakers as they work to respond to this surge of interest by transitioning their production lines to electric models. But all major U.S. automakers have now committed to fully electrifying their product lines over the next 10-20 years and have pledged investments totaling over $200 billion by 2030 to do so. As the International Energy Agency announced recently, it is not a question of if but how fast the transition to electrified transportation will come.
The truth is we are moving to a world where EVs are the norm, not the exception, and we need to be preparing our electric grid so that it’s up to the task of reliably and cost-effectively charging so many of them. After all, we already see strain from extreme weather events and periodic blackouts across portions of the country. This transition will require a meaningful investment of policy focus and funding to succeed. Supporters of the EV transition – including elected officials in many leading states on EV deployment – do themselves and the public a disservice by hand-waving these issues away. Investing in our power grid couldn’t be smarter for our future and it’s a project worthy of our attention.
The good news is that we already have the technologies needed to make this switch to electrified transportation successful, and we know what policies (especially at the state level) are needed to support this transition. In states where EVs are the most popular, the policy roadmaps are already being charted. What we now need are states, regulators, legislators, and most importantly, power utilities, to invest in, and design programs around, a world in which we’re powering most of our vehicles with electricity.
What does that world look like? Transitioning to electrified transportation is an opportunity for us to think about an entirely new paradigm for our energy system. That’s because investing in grid infrastructure isn’t simply about preventing gridlock, it’s about laying the foundation for an integrated, efficient, and resilient energy ecosystem. This is a world in which, for instance, smart technologies enable two-way communication and power flow between utilities and consumers, allowing software and hardware to respond in real time to grid conditions, or optimize the use of clean energy sources. These advancements, which we need utilities to more widely adopt, can significantly reduce the stress on the grid during peak energy use periods and pave the way for a cleaner and more energy-savvy future.
We can also maximize the infrastructure we already have, which will minimize costs to the public. Forward-thinking utilities are adopting programs that allow EV drivers to get the lowest rates for charging at times when energy is most readily available in the area, like overnight, when energy isn’t as in-demand, or when the sun is shining early in the morning.
Most EVs and EV charging devices allow scheduled charging to enable owners to maximize those savings in a way that fits their transportation needs. Utilities can also do a better job of helping businesses identify where and when to build new plugs. In some cases, EVs equipped with bidirectional charging can be compensated for sending power back onto the grid if it is needed, thereby reducing the need for additional local infrastructure.
Even with the right policies in place, experts predict we will need to build new power generation. Most utilities are recognizing this need and are developing transportation electrification plans and integrating them into their resource planning forecasts, ideally down to the neighborhood level. Knowing it takes time to build, regulators may need to consider reforms to the traditional utility business model that would allow a proactive buildout of infrastructure using these forecasts. This would alleviate costly delays or sequential construction projects when a more complete one could have been predicted. It may also mean compensating utilities based on performance against goals rather than as a rate of return on deployed physical infrastructure, as has historically been the case.
To fully harness the potential of electric vehicles, we must recognize and prioritize the urgent need to invest in grid infrastructure. Much like the investments made in the 1950s to expand our interstate highway system, this is a down payment on the promise of a better tomorrow. It’s a deal the United States must be ready to make anew, and one that will be required to maintain our status as a global technological leader.