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Overcoming the harsh realities of grid modernization

Tom McCalmont, Co-Founder and CEO of Paired Power delves into the challenges of grid modernization to meet demand for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs).

The US$5bn in funding promised by the Inflation Reduction Act is set to “supercharge” electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure in the US. However, as the honeymoon of these unprecedented incentives for EVs begins to wear off, the implications of how challenging it is for the existing utility grids to make use of these generous incentives to provide society with more chargers are coming into focus. Even before the IRA passed, Mckinsey & Company predicted that 50% zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2030 would “require 1.2 million public EV chargers and 28 million private EV chargers by that year. All told, the country would need almost 20 times more chargers than it has now.” This demand will only be exacerbated with the new IRA legislation. With such tremendous demand for EV charging, one could expect the already monumental backlog of charging site permitting and interconnections with US utilities to grow exponentially. Waiting around two years for charging stations to be connected to the utility grid so they can finally charge electric vehicles is just one serious barrier to entry for businesses and building owners. This opens up new opportunities for off-grid EV chargers to power up public charging options.

The challenges in grid modernization Bottlenecks in infrastructure and permitting in a building boom are inevitable, yet EV charging faces particularly unique challenges. The reality is that permitting and approvals have gotten harder and harder over the past 20 years, and while there are initiatives in place to alleviate this red tape, as displayed by California’s recent legislation to prevent unreasonable barriers to permitting approvals, it still takes time for this to be executed. Moreover, it could take years for utility grids in many locations to be interconnected or to build out the new electrical services capable of supplying power. Just last year, the Department of Energy released a new initiative to help cut back on the lengthy process as they found the average project (including solar, energy storage, and wind development) can take 3.7 years from the time it enters the interconnection queue to being up and running. However, like many government initiatives, this takes time, and for interconnection, this can mean years. Among other factors making it hard to accommodate a new generation of power, utilities are often slow to add new generating capacity because it could require new transmission lines, which can take decades to get approved and then constructed. On top of this, customer sites often suffer dramatically higher bills through demand charges due to the addition of EV chargers, or they max out the number of grid-connected chargers the site’s service capacity can handle but still have a desire for more. Additionally, demand charges can quickly add up for facilities, businesses, or individuals looking to add EV chargers to their properties. Because the monthly fee to maintain the electric utility’s infrastructure can fluctuate based on how much energy is used in peak months, EV charging sites that are grid-tied can quickly become expensive to use and maintain. Upgrading infrastructure and meeting regulatory requirements can be a lengthy and expensive process, according to McKinsey & Company.

Alleviating these challenges Off-grid EV chargers are a great solution to these challenges for several reasons. They can be installed quickly (sometimes as fast as one workday); they are often less expensive, and they can be more flexible than grid-tied EV chargers. In the face of permitting and interconnection challenges, off-grid charging solutions hold the key to meeting EV growth without the wait.

  • Overall reduced costs: By generating electricity via solar, users can avoid paying for power from the grid. This is particularly important for businesses, as demand charges make up a large portion of their overall electricity bill. Solar energy is renewable and free once the infrastructure is in place. With traditional, grid-connected chargers, the user has a lifetime commitment to pay for the energy. With solar-powered charging, users never have to pay for the electricity. This is further supported with batteries that can be used to store excess electricity generated during daytime hours for use at night or during peak times, further reducing costs.

  • Increased flexibility: Off-grid EV chargers can be installed anywhere, regardless of whether there is a nearby grid connection. This makes them ideal for locations where connecting to the grid would be difficult or impossible, such as remote locations or sites with space constraints, businesses with temporary leases. Off-grid solutions can also serve as an alternative to upgrading energy services on-site. Often a local utility will want a location to upgrade its energy services to allow for a building to install EV chargers to enable the maximum needed electricity to charge EVs at each proposed station to flow to the site safely. This can be expensive, time-intensive, and, quite frankly, isn’t always necessary.

  • Improved reliability: As they are not reliant on the utility grid, off-grid chargers can continue to operate even if there is an outage on the local network. As public safety power shut-off (PSPS) events and other outages due to grid constraints, fires and other natural disasters become increasingly common, having a reliable alternative power source will be crucial to providing relief. Moreover, these solutions are ideal for critical applications such as emergency services, evacuation shelters, grocery stores, hospitals, and more.

  • Environmental benefits: When renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity for an off-grid EV charger, it eliminates carbon emissions, which is a clear advantage over grid-tied EV charging. Grid-connected EV chargers often charge at night, which frequently relies on energy produced from fossil fuels. An off-grid charger that stores daytime solar energy in a battery and then delivers it at night is ultraclean with 100% green power. For those businesses, facilities, or municipalities that don’t yet offer EV charging, off-grid solutions provide a simpler way to provide that service while reducing the overall carbon footprint of their communities.

The energy revolution of the 21st Century depends on society’s ability to actually transition to cleaner energy solutions. It’s expected that utilities will be slow both in adopting renewable energy generation broadly, as well as in permitting and connecting EV charging solutions. Off-grid solutions sidestep the waiting room of the utility as well as eliminate the friction points of cost and availability. However, because not every site will have the capacity for grid-connected chargers, or a desire to wait for interconnection, one can expect off-grid EV charging options to fill a void and support organisations and local grids to satisfy the growing needs of EV drivers where and when they want to charge. To successfully meet the 2030 goal for 50% ZEVs, off-grid solutions have to be part of the equation.

Author: Tom McCalmont

Source: EV Magazine

Published on: November 5, 2022

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