Will a deluge of energy-sucking electric cars spell disaster for the U.S. power grid? Looking to China—which is lightyears ahead of the States on just about every front of the EV transition—the answer to that question appears to be a resounding “nope.”
What’s clear is that China’s rapidly ballooning EV fleet requires an increasingly enormous amount of electricity to keep it moving. According to a recent analysis by BloombergNEF (BNEF), the news wire’s energy research arm, China’s electric cars consumed as much electricity from public charging stations in 2023 as the entire country of Ireland. (Note that BNEF lumped fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids together for its study.)
For all the energy nerds out there, that’s 35 terawatt-hours. This year, BNEF projects that figure will rise to 52 terawatt-hours, exceeding the energy demand of Greece. Those are indeed astonishing figures when put into context (even if Ireland isn’t that big a country). Still, EVs haven’t broken China’s electrical infrastructure. Far from it.
“There are industry-wide discussions about the impact of EVs on electricity systems,” BNEF researchers said in their report. “Data in China, however, shows that the electricity distributed from public chargers is already at significant levels but has not led to widespread breakdowns of the electricity system.”
EV critics have sounded the alarm about the dangers electric cars pose to the U.S. power grid. During a heatwave in 2022, when California’s utility urged EV owners to avoid charging their cars during certain hours, detractors like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson latched on, pushing a narrative that our electrical infrastructure simply can’t handle more EVs. What we’re seeing in China proves that isn’t the case.
China is way ahead of the U.S. in EV adoption and provides a glimpse into what our future may hold. There are already some 20 million all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles swarming the country’s roads, according to BNEF. Last year, China put 890,000 public charging connectors in the ground, the group estimates. That’s over five times the amount of plugs the U.S. has installed, period.
More electric cars needing to charge will no doubt require improvements to America’s power generation and distribution infrastructure, experts say. But there are a few reasons that we shouldn’t expect everything to go haywire from too many Teslas topping up.
EVs don’t actually consume all that much energy, and they still won’t even when there are millions more of them. In California, which has more EV penetration than any other state, EVs account for less than 1% of energy demand during peak times, according to the California Energy Commission. By 2030, an estimated 5.7 million electric cars and trucks should only account for 4% of peak loads, the agency says.
Crucially, electric cars are quite flexible as far as when they need to be plugged in. During a heatwave, everyone runs their A/C simultaneously, putting extra stress on electrical infrastructure. That can lead to blackouts and other nasty consequences.
EVs, on the other hand, can charge essentially any time they’re parked and only need to do so for a few hours each week. Utilities and charging providers can manage grid stress by making EV owners pay more or less depending on when they plug in. That kind of smarter charging is something BNEF thinks we’ll see more of going forward.