The flames lit up the sky when the electric-power substation in my town blew up one night last August. TV news had it covered: A transformer at the Detroit Edison site had exploded, immediately knocking out power for over 4,000 homes and businesses. More than 9,000 residents dug out flashlights, lit candles and sweated the summer heat. The utility acted quickly, bringing in a convoy of five flatbed trailers—Detroit Edison’s mobile emergency units—each carrying a large diesel-electric generator rig.
Humming away behind a makeshift fence and “DANGER: High Voltage” signs, the generator trailers formed the nucleus of a temporary grid while an army of helmeted technicians worked to get the juice flowing. Two days after the fire, the town’s lights were back on and my beer was cold again. But as I write this seven weeks later, the emergency generators are still powering the town. And the utility still doesn’t know for certain the cause of the explosion.
Did a squirrel gnaw through a cable? Was equipment at fault? We never know in southeastern Michigan, where the electric grid is as dodgy as the proverbial Lucas light switch on old British cars. The switch with three settings—Dim, Flicker and Off.
During breezy days, we expect the traffic lights strung over intersections to be non-functional. Because often, they are.
One morning as I photographed the blackened hulk of the fried transformer after it was removed (see image), I spoke with two utility engineers on the scene. Given the shaky state of the region’s electric grid, I asked, how would it perform today if EV sales rapidly escalate and demand for charging increases significantly?
“Let me put it this way,” the senior engineer began. “If you buy a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla today and you’re the only one on your block who’s charging an EV, the local grid can handle it. But if two or three of your neighbors buy EVs, and that’s multiplied across thousands of blocks in dozens of towns, the local and regional grids would be pushed to the brink of collapse. No way are we prepared for electric cars.”
Where less than 5% of vehicles sold in 2016 in the U.S. were equipped with electrified powertrains, the industry aspires to have over 50% of all new models in 2021 so equipped. Because most of these are expected to be non-plug-in hybrids, the potential near-term impact on the grid would be minimal, experts believe. Add many hundreds of thousands of battery EVs to that mix, however, and the specter of transformers erupting becomes real.
That threat is not just in the U.S. Friends in Germany and the U.K. assert that their local electric grids are inadequate to support a rapid rise in EV charging. Will they be ready by 2040—the year chosen (perhaps by tossing darts at dates on a wall) by some European politicians to begin banning sales of non-hybrid gas and diesel cars?
“Not unless we commit to massive re-engineering of our network for power generation and electricity distribution,” observed an engineer on the Bosch stand at the Frankfurt show last month. “It will cost billions and take decades.”
The speed in which the auto industry has delivered a growing range of electrified vehicles into the market is remarkable. OEMs and suppliers continue to iterate the technology and drive cost out. Now it’s time for the electric power utilities to deliver their half of the equation, if the electric-vehicle dream is to be realized.