Electric cars won't just solve tailpipe emissions — they could even boost America's power grid, experts say

Electric cars won’t just solve tailpipe emissions — they could even boost America’s power grid, experts say

  • Millions of more electric vehicles on the road could make America’s power grid more resilient.
  • An innovation called vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, technology allows electric vehicles to deliver power to the grid when needed, but it’s still in its infancy.
  • One day, electric vehicles could store vast amounts of energy and help the United States transition to renewable energy sources.

As the United States moves toward a future filled with electric vehicles, it’s reasonable to wonder how much additional demand the electric grid can handle. After all, during a recent heat wave, the California network operator urged customers to limit charging their cars to avoid breakdowns.

However, energy and transportation experts say that with some planning, utilities are fully capable of handling more clean cars. Even better, electric SUVs, trucks and buses can bolster the grid if deployed intelligently.

Electric vehicles can store energy for when it’s needed most

When electric cars are parked (which they are most of the time), their batteries can collectively become a valuable asset to the grid as a whole, experts say.

One day, millions of vehicles could use special two-way chargers to absorb energy when it’s plentiful and return it to the grid when needed, helping utilities manage heat waves and other peaks in demand. This vision is based on what is called vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, technology.

Experts like Matthias Preindl, professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, also predict that V2G could help wean the country off polluting energy sources. Solar and wind power are intermittent, so turning on lights when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing requires storing energy for later. Electric cars could do just that, he said.

“If we want to go to 100% renewable energy, which is now the target of many states, it requires a lot of batteries,” Preindl told Insider. “And cars seem like the only really viable solution at the moment.”

If much of the U.S. fleet goes electric, the amount of battery storage available is enormous: The National Resources Defense Council estimates that the 14 million electric vehicles expected to be on California’s roads by 2035 could power every house in the state for three days.

There’s a long way to go

Although V2G is already being implemented in a limited way (mostly through pilot programs), there are barriers to mainstreaming the technology.

For regular electric vehicle owners to supply power to the grid at scale, automakers, charging companies and utilities will need to standardize the process, said Andrew Meintz, chief engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to Insider. Participants will also have to be paid by utilities for their contributions, he said.

A more feasible use case for V2G in the short term could be with large fleets, Meintz said. Amazon, for example, has the money and influence to work with utilities, automakers and billing companies to iron out the issues.

Electric vehicles are already helping the small-scale network

Highland Electric Fleets, which provides electric buses and charging infrastructure to school districts, has been experimenting with V2G as another revenue stream since 2021. This summer, its two V2G-enabled school buses in Massachusetts powered the grid almost daily to help the local utility. manage periods of high power consumption, Sean Leach, the company’s chief technology officer, told Insider. He plans more extensive V2G projects in Vermont, Maryland and elsewhere.

A Highland Electric Fleets electric school bus plugged into a charger.

One of the Highland Electric Fleets school buses plugged into a charger in Beverly, MA.

Highland electric fleets

“At the end of the day, let’s use these buses for what they can do. These batteries are huge. They spend a lot of time doing nothing because the routes are very predictable for schools,” Leach said. Right now, the company is getting email requests to unload power, but they’re working on automating things.

It will take a lot of work before we see millions of electric vehicles seamlessly supporting the larger network. But some vehicles can already share energy locally in useful and interesting ways. Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup can provide emergency backup power to customers’ homes, provided they have the correct home charger. General Motors’ upcoming trucks promise to do the same.

Edward J. Klock-McCook, director of sustainability think tank RMI, told Insider that if it becomes popular enough, this kind of capability could benefit the network in much the same way as a full-fledged V2G future. Armed with the big batteries from their Chevrolet Lightning and Silverado electric vehicles, owners could provide their own electricity during power outages or when the grid is on.

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