The vast majority of Americans gas up their cars at the local gas station right now, but that will likely change in the coming decades.
Electric cars, like Tesla and the Nissan Leaf, are slowly growing in popularity across the country. These new vehicles cost less to drive per mile than traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles and their ranges are getting further than ever, but the transition to this new technology will change how we use the electric grid.
A small, but growing market share
Idaho Power is gearing up for more Idahoans driving electric vehicles in the coming years as part of its planning for electrical infrastructure needs. As more and more drivers are “fueling” their vehicles at home with electricity instead of heading to gas stations, it will require some extra juice in residential neighborhoods.
But not so much that it’s liable to overwhelm the grid anytime soon, according to Idaho Power officials. Because the vehicles are still relatively rare in Idaho, with the exceptions of some small pockets of popularity like the North End, there aren’t enough of them in the Treasure Valley yet to put a sudden strain on the grid before the utility can install the proper infrastructure.
Electric vehicle sales only made up 2.5% of all car registrations in the United States at the end of 2020, according to financial services company IHS Markit. This is still a far smaller percentage than 14% in Europe and 7% in China, but the United States’s fleet of electric vehicles was triple what it was in 2017.
The study found some areas of the country have more electric vehicles than others, with 11% of vehicles in San Francisco running on battery power as opposed to .9% in the southwest region of the country. Some experts estimate one in six cars built in 2035 will be electric vehicles.
Off-peak charging helps keep impact low
Electric vehicles are popping up around Boise’s neighborhoods, but Idaho Power says they aren’t as burdensome on the grid as some people think.
There are several reasons for this, including timing and the relatively low power required on a daily basis. Idaho Power’s Program Specialist Patti Best said most drivers put less than 30 miles on their cars every day and don’t require daily charging. Plus, chargers can be programmed to refuel the car’s battery at night when power usage is relatively low and rates are cheaper for customers enrolled in special plans from Idaho Power.
The amount of power used for electric vehicles depends on how fast the owner wants the car to charge and how many vehicles they have, but a household with multiple electric vehicles might still only need one charger depending on use.
“If you’re using the standard 120 volt plug, which is the slowest charge, it will pull about the same amount of power as a hairdryer,” Best said. “If you jump up to the level two charger, most of those stations are pulling from 4 and 6 kilowats. That’s two to three hairdryers worth. So, most customers won’t have a problem with not enough power.”
Adding an electric vehicle charger to your home may take some upgrades, but it varies from household to household. The slowest chargers for electric vehicles can be charged with a standard outlet, but if you want the slightly faster option you will need to add a 240 volt charger, which is similar to what a clothes dryer uses.
In some cases, Idaho Power may need to upgrade the nearby transformer in order to accommodate an electric vehicle, but this type of added infrastructure improvement has been extremely rare, according to company spokesperson Maria Willacy. The company requires customers to pay for transformer upgrades to accommodate electric vehicles. The company could not provide a number of customers who have needed to complete this.
“Most customers’ electrical panels should be able to accommodate a typical EV charger without an issue, and our practice is to size transformers with capacity for future growth,” Willacy said. “Therefore, expected EV adoption rates shouldn’t require most customers to perform upgrades, especially if the chargers are 6 kW or less.”
‘All I see are benefits’
Idahoans who went to electric vehicles aren’t looking back.
Lisa Hecht has been driving a Tesla since 2018 and has since convinced several of her friends to buy them too. She charges her car for free at home using electricity generated from her solar panels using net metering and a 240-volt charger, which she said uses far less electricity than what she had to pay on her power bill when there was water damage in her home a few years ago.
To get her home ready for the Tesla, Hecht paid $350 to install the new circuit for the upgraded charger, but she did not have to do a transformer upgrade. No one else she knows who bought an electric vehicle needed one either.
“There are three or four people who own Teslas in my neighborhood and we haven’t had any issues,” she said. “For everybody it’s been a non issue. All I see are benefits.”
Hecht recently drove her Tesla across the country to see family in Wisconsin, charging it along the way. Outside of the charging station in her home, she also has a range of options in and around Boise and along Idaho’s interstates. A map of chargers on Idaho Power’s website shows roughly a dozen public chargers near downtown Boise.
What about kids’ rides to school?
Environmental groups hope for more battery-powered vehicles on the road than just cars.
Valley Regional Transit recently rolled out several electric buses to its fleet and there are electric garbage trucks picking up waste in Boise, but Conservation Voters for Idaho is hoping for the addition of electric school buses. The advocacy group supports President Joe Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan and its proposed funding to upgrade the United States’ electric grid to better accommodate electric vehicles and help school districts buy electric buses.
“The biggest hurdle for electric school buses is the upfront cost,” CVI Program Associate Ryan McGoldrick said. “They can be a couple hundred thousand dollars more than a traditional school bus, but they save money in the long term. The issue is with school districts there’s the challenge of making that upfront purchase.”
Even if school districts were to get the buses, they have the same question of charging that residential electric vehicle owners do. McGoldrick said the bill would also include funding for charging stations for the buses and the other upgrades necessary to get them on the road.
He said his group is trying to help school districts position themselves to get the help so they can transition to more environmentally friendly ways to drive children to school each day.
“Our goal is to make sure that Idaho school districts are prepared so they can take advantage of that funding when it’s available so it will save money that will be put back into our education system and it will make the air cleaner,” he said. “It’s better for drivers and students.”