Grid infrastructure hindering efforts to decarbonize transportation | Hotter on metals

Why the last mile of charging infrastructure is the most challenging

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by transportation, the number one emitter of carbon in the United States, have focused on the deployment of electric vehicles (EVs).

But there’s a snag: based on current grid infrastructure, there won’t be enough available power to support them.

Dave Daly, president of EV Edison, which provides EV charging solutions, said that while a lack of connected power is not yet a major concern, due to the still-slow pace of vehicle electrification, that will change in the coming years.

Of the roughly 300 million vehicles in the US today, only about 2 million (less than 1%) of them are EVs.

In the US alone, the target is for half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be zero-emissions vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell types.

That means a huge increase in demand for metals and minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper used to produce batteries, charging stations and vehicles, as well as the associated energy required.

“The biggest issue we face isn’t so much the EV chargers but the power supply to the chargers, the power infrastructure,” Daly told the Fastmarkets Copper Seminar in New York last week.

“It’s a tremendous [grid] load that will need to be drawn, particularly when you get higher levels of EV penetration,” he said, adding that around $2 trillion of investment in grid infrastructure is required globally to aid energy transition.

The Last Mile

There are more hurdles to overcome.

On a basic level, the problem doesn’t lie in the transmission system, which moves electrical energy from power plants to substations. Nor does it lie in the distribution system - the poles and cables carrying electricity above and below ground from the transmission system to consumers, although that part of the network could do with a little investment.

The real hitch is connecting the distribution lines to EV chargers, a part of the system that Daly describes as “the last mile that is least invested in.”

Typically, that part of the network has been run until it fails, at which point it is repaired. But, Daly noted, in a modern world, where homes are offices and schools require power, and vehicles are electric, the amount of resilience required for reliability in that ‘last mile’ is completely different.

“That’s where investment is needed. Right now, it’s a chicken-and-egg trade-off – we need to grow the number of EVs, but investment in the last mile needs to happen in parallel,” he told the seminar last week.

An added complication is that the lead time at power utility companies for the transformers and switch gears needed to make that investment is around two years, so there will be no progress in the immediate future.

On the positive side, some initiatives are starting to solve some of these issues.

One such scheme is the Interconnection Innovation e-Xchange, a new partnership funded by US President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that brings together grid operators, utilities, state and tribal governments, clean energy developers, energy justice organizations, and other stakeholders to connect more clean energy to the country’s power grid by solving the challenges facing the power industry.

But a widespread increase in EV charging is going to be a significant challenge for the existing electrical grid, which is where energy storage comes in.

Peak load

Battery storage technology has a key part to play in ensuring that homes and businesses can ultimately be powered by clean energy, even when the sun has stopped shining, or the wind isn’t blowing.

Yet achieving energy storage is complicated, given the way it will reshape the electricity load curve.

Around the world, current energy grids are typically built to handle peak load around 5-6pm each day, when people return from work, school or other errands.

In the US, the load factor – which measures how much of the full capacity of the grid is used over the course of a 24-hour day through the year – is currently around 40%, meaning there is about 60% unused capacity, largely overnight.

During that nighttime period, it’s envisaged that the grid would take advantage of quieter demand to charge grid-scale batteries to create energy storage.

But even this is not as simple as it sounds: the wires that connect the grid need to be able to cool down overnight, or face a decline in available capacity the next day. That’s why the current system needs to be upgraded to cope with charging batteries for energy storage overnight.

Battery technologies

What has yet to be determined is the extent to which developments in EV technology will affect grid-scale batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries continue to be the type most widely used in energy storage, making up the majority of all new capacity being installed as the world moves toward decarbonization.

It’s possible, industry experts say, that battery chemistries which become less attractive for EVs can be deployed at a lower cost for stationary applications on the grid.

According to George Kamiya, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA), lithium-iron-phosphate batteries are being increasingly favored for grid-scale installations, particularly in China. These batteries are lower cost and have higher durability than nickel-manganese-cobalt chemistries, which dominate the EV market, Kamiya said.

“EV battery manufacturers aim to continually develop greater energy density to reduce upfront costs and increase EV range, but this has little effect on stationary applications, for which size and weight are secondary considerations,” Kamiya said.

“Therefore,” he added,” as supply chains advance to the next higher-performing blend or chemistry, technology that may become less attractive for EVs can be deployed at a lower cost for stationary applications on the grid.”

The advantages of energy storage are immense, and will work as a bridge to allow rapid EV charging when the number of EVs on the road increases before eventually leveling off again at high penetration levels. Getting there is just going to take some work.

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