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Biden wants millions of electric vehicles on the roads. Can the power grid handle it?

NBC News logo NBC News 6/18/2021 Paul A. Eisenstein
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Four months after an unexpected ice storm caused much of the Texas power grid to crash, state regulators warned this week that a June heat wave is causing a “high number of forced generation outages.”

The twin Texas crises have put the spotlight not only on the Lone Star State but on the entire U.S. electric grid. And that, in turn, comes at a time when the energy infrastructure faces growing demand from the electric vehicles expected to roll out by the millions over the course of the coming decade.

The U.S. reached “the tipping point” this year, said Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors. Demand for battery-electric vehicles is growing at a record pace, spurred in part by the debut of an assortment of new models. But not everyone is convinced she’s right. Studies find consumers are still reluctant to buy electric cars due to high costs, lack of a nationwide charging network — and growing concerns about the energy grid.

Those are all issues that President Joe Biden aims to address, among other ways, through the proposed infrastructure bill that would set aside $170 billion to directly back the shift to battery-electric vehicles. About 10 percent of that funding is earmarked for a coast-to-coast charging system to rival today’s ubiquitous network of gasoline stations.

“We need to jam on the accelerator here,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a recent online seminar outlining the administration’s desire to promote battery electric vehicles — with an emphasis on designing, engineering and producing them domestically.

“We’re going to double down on our R&D in the technologies that will make EVs easier to manufacture, easier to deploy, easier for the American people to access,” the former Michigan governor said.

There are a number of reasons behind the administration’s push for battery-car technology. There’s the need to reduce CO2 emissions in order to meet global warming targets. There’s a desire to reduce America’s dependence upon petroleum imports, and there’s also a growing concern that China will wind up dominating the EV segment — something that raises defense, as well as economic, concerns.

China is not only the world’s largest electric vehicle market but also has the largest network of lithium-ion battery plants, 93 compared to just four in the U.S., according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The data service forecasts that China will have 140 of these “gigafactories” in place by 2030, compared to as few as 10 in the U.S.

In a new National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries, the Department of Energy has laid out a variety of steps to promote more U.S. production. That starts with greater access to raw materials. Internally, the administration has been debating whether to promote greater domestic mining or ally with friendly trade partners, such as Canada and Australia, to build up stocks of critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel.


Video: Biden: 'The future of the auto industry is electric' (NBC News)

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Then there’s the carrot-and-stick of incentives. The administration is expected to offer direct financial incentives to prop up the business case for building both battery and assembly plants in the U.S. A proposed Senate bill would increase today’s $7,500 tax credits on electric vehicles to as much as $12,500 — but there’s a catch. The higher figure would, in part, be reserved for vehicles that are domestically produced.

There are signs that manufacturers are listening. General Motors will open its first U.S. battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, later this year. It recently announced one in Spring Hill, Tennessee; and on Wednesday GM also said it will add two more plants as it upgrades its electrification plans, increasing its investment to $35 billion through 2035.

Ford CEO Jim Farley last month indicated the second-largest domestic automaker is likely to commit to battery production, as well.

Tesla’s Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, is today one of the world’s largest sources of lithium-ion batteries and will add capacity alongside the assembly plant it is erecting in Texas, with CEO Elon Musk indicating other production operations will follow.

Production of electrified vehicles could also see a big growth spurt as a response to U.S. incentives. GM now plans to produce BEVs at two Michigan plants and another in Tennessee — though it also will produce some models in Mexico and Canada. Ford, Volkswagen, Nissan and Volvo are among the automakers who either are or will produce plug-based models in the U.S.

While the White House has focused much of its attention directly on electric vehicles and the battery manufacturing process, there is another area that will need attention in any final infrastructure bill, experts emphasize.

“We have to recognize that the (electric) infrastructure in parts of this country has fallen behind that in many other parts of the world,” said Scott Hinson, chief technology officer at Pecan Street, an Austin, Texas-based energy research project.

While the problem is "fixable,” Hinson said, he noted that the U.S. has a tendency not to "work on things until they’re a big problem.”

Power companies have struggled to deal with a number of challenges, from tightening their cybersecurity in the face of ransomware attacks such as the Colonial Pipeline shutdown last month, to disrupting power in order to prevent downed wires from setting wildfires in California. That state also faced rolling blackouts a few years back due to energy shortages.

A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that increased demand for electricity — much of that for electric vehicles — could see a 38 percent increase in energy demand by 2050.

While there seems little doubt that electric vehicles will increase the nation’s grid load, “the transition…will be slow,” said Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, one of the nation’s largest charging companies. Around 80 percent of EV owners charge their vehicles at night, and mostly from home, taking advantage of a general surplus of off-peak generating capacity.

But, even in off-hours, the already creaky grid is likely to become still more stressed, requiring plenty of upgrades, on top of new generating capacity — whether fossil-fueled or renewable.

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