Can Electric Pickup Trucks Save the Grid in Texas?

Just months after it was battered by a winter storm, the Texas electric grid once again strained under extreme weather conditions. In February, millions of people lost power during a storm that knocked out much of the state’s electricity infrastructure and caused at least 151 deaths.

Last week, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and dozens of nuclear, coal and gas-fired power plants offline for unexpected maintenance, the power grid was again struggling, and its operators were asking residents to conserve energy to avoid power outages.

Meanwhile, Texas is also on the leading edge of America’s ongoing electric vehicle boom. The state hosts the new Tesla Gigafactory that will manufacture electric SUVs and semis. And the introduction of the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning last month has dramatic implications for a state with about 7.8 million (automatic PDF download) pickup trucks on the road.

These two electricity trends in the Lone Star State are tightly intertwined. An EV is, in many practical ways, a battery that can roll around — and the electric pickup trucks, SUVs, buses and semis entering the market have much bigger batteries than most current EVs. Will the charging demands of these new EV models represent a new liability for the grid, further straining it to the limit? Or can their larger batteries actually help meet the emerging grid resilience challenges facing Texas and other states?

With great power demand comes great resilience value

Electric vehicles belong in a category of consumer products that double as distributed energy resources (DERs). An electric pickup, like a rooftop solar panel, a home battery, a smart thermostat or water heater, or even wall insulation and other energy efficiency strategies, can save money for individual consumers while also providing benefits back to the grid and to all-electric utility customers. Importantly for the recent and ongoing grid crises in Texas, California and other states, DERs also can improve grid resilience, helping keep the lights on for critical loads even when the broader grid is strained or disabled.

An EV is, in many practical ways, a battery that can roll around — and the electric pickup trucks, SUVs, buses and semis entering the market have much bigger batteries than most current EVs.

What could electric pickup trucks mean for a resilient electricity system in Texas? Some rough calculations illustrate the potential benefits for pickup truck owners, their neighbors and Texans at large:

  • Backup power for electric pickup owners: Large batteries, such as those required to power pickup trucks, can provide a meaningful supply of backup power during a grid outage. An electric pickup such as the F-150 Lightning might have about 115 kilowatt-hours of usable capacity, with the ability to charge or discharge on the order of 10 kilowatts via a Level 2 bi-directional charger.

    When resiliently connected to a home service panel that can safely “island” the home from the grid during an outage, a fully charged battery of that size could meet the electricity needs of the average American household for more than three days. An average 1.5 kW output level over that span would be enough to power lights, medical equipment, WiFi, refrigerators and furnace fans in the winter or some occasional air conditioning in the summer. Coupled with a rooftop solar PV system to recharge the truck battery during the day, this power reserve could be sustained much longer, provided the sun keeps shining.
     

  • Local, resilient power for communities: If properly integrated into grid planning, electric pickups can not only provide backup power for their owners during broader grid outages, but also for entire communities. The concept of an “autonomous energy grid,” developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and piloted by leading utilities, enables the intelligent coordination of DERs to provide power to critical loads. Through an autonomous energy grid, pickup batteries and vehicle batteries in general, including city fleet vehicles and buses, could provide power not just to homes, but also to community facilities. EV batteries could help keep critical sites powered, including first-response stations, emergency shelters, nursing homes, community centers and grocery and convenience stores, even when the broader utility grid is offline or has limited power available.
     
  • Better reliability for all Texans: More than 20 percent of the vehicles on the road in Texas are pickup trucks. If half of these pickup truck owners switched to an electric pickup in the next decade and had their vehicles plugged in during a grid reliability event, they would provide the Texas grid with about 460 gigawatt-hours of battery energy storage capacity and about 38 gigawatts of power discharge capacity.

    For perspective, the entire United States added 3.5 GWh of energy storage capacity and 1.5 GW of discharge capacity in 2020. Therefore, electrifying even half of Texas pickup trucks would radically scale the storage market by one or two orders of magnitude.

    A 50 percent market share for electric pickups would also more than fill the capacity hole left in Texas by unexpected nuclear, coal and gas plant outages last week. On June 14, the grid operator reported 11 GW of plants forced to shut down due to unexpected outages — roughly one-third of the discharge capacity from a half-electrified pickup market in Texas. And even if pickups were not able to “backfeed” to the grid to provide emergency capacity, they still would provide benefits to all grid customers, not just truck-owning households. By supporting home power needs, pickup truck batteries would effectively lower grid demand, limiting the scale and duration of rolling blackouts during a supply shortage.

Saving money every day

DERs, like EVs, not only provide resilience when the electricity grid is strained or disabled — they also provide savings for customers and the grid as a whole in normal operating conditions. For example, a fleet of about 4 million electric pickups in Texas could generate on the order of $500 million to $1 billion or more in value for the Texas electric grid each year through smart charging and using “vehicle-to-home” mode.

  • Smart charging: Even without the ability to inject power back to the grid, RMI research has shown that timed charging of EVs to minimize energy costs can save on the order of $0.01 per kWh used to charge the vehicle. For the Texas pickup fleet imagined here, that equates to about $160 million in energy cost savings per year — a number that likely will grow as investors in Texas continue to build out renewable energy projects, and as electricity prices increasingly track the availability of wind and sun. Charging EVs when demand is low also provides benefits to all utility customers, because it allows the utility to sell more electricity without investing in additional infrastructure, spreading the cost of the existing grid over more kilowatt-hours.
  • Peak capacity value: Timed charging of EVs, or the use of their batteries in “vehicle-to-home” mode, also can reduce demand during peak hours and thus avoid expensive investment in new gas-fired power plants that otherwise would be required for reliability. Estimating the value of avoiding a new peaking power plant at about $100 per kW of capacity per year, the Texas pickup truck fleet imagined here could provide on the order of $750 million per year in avoided capacity costs for the Texas grid. That number assumes that just 20 percent of electric pickups are plugged in and available to reduce demand by 10 kW each during peak conditions.

Electric pickups can’t carry the load on their own

Electrifying pickup trucks, while helpful, is no silver bullet for energy resilience in Texas or anywhere. Deeper challenges inherent within the structures and interdependencies of America’s energy system create fundamental resilience risks from a growing array of human-made and natural threats, including climate change-driven extreme weather (both hot and cold).

Any resilience strategy in this emerging threat environment should consider a portfolio approach to maximize resilience while also providing economic and other benefits to electricity customers. As a start, home developers and policymakers can prioritize energy efficiency investment in buildings to provide more “hours of safety” during grid emergencies and reduce the magnitude of potential outages. Utilities can prioritize resilience strategies that leverage DERs, rather than ignoring them.

The more efficiency and system-level benefits we can wring out of homes, businesses and the DERs they host, the farther electric pickup trucks can help drive the grid toward safety.

This post appeared first on ACT News.

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