Electric cars are coming to Texas — can our broken power grid handle them?

Weather & Traffic In-Depth

AUSTIN (KXAN) – As part of National Drive Electric Week, the Ford Motor Company announced a new push to make their fleet of trucks electric and to build more cars in Texas.

The announcement came eight months after a deadly winter storm left millions in the dark. Many viewers have asked KXAN since then, does our state have the infrastructure to even support electric cars.

The answer: not today, but if we take the right steps, we could.

“There’s a lot of discussion, ERCOT wide and at the PUC (Public Utility Commission) of how we as an industry, we as a state grid can do better,” says Austin Energy’s Manager of Electric Vehicles and Emerging Technology Karl Popham.

“”We invest a lot of money, meaning the industry and ERCOT and (Austin Energy), providing a lot of infrastructure to cover a few key days of hot summer afternoon.” Popham says that electric vehicles, however, operate differently. For one, they usually charge at night when demand isn’t as high.

“We have excess capacity, because we built for these peaks and at night, you have all this unused capacity,” Popham says. Meaning that EVs won’t tax the system in the way many may assume.

Electric vehicles may actually be good for the grid

The new Ford F-150 is capable of returning power to the grid

“It’s a logical question to ask what these guy’s impact is on the grid. But the very logical next question is what can these guys do for the grid,” said Colin Rowan, Director of Communications for Pecan Street, an Austin-based team researching clean energy and how it is used.

“They are rolling batteries.” Several electric vehicles hitting the market, like the new Ford F-150 Lightning, have the ability to send power back into the grid. “That could be a huge asset for grid managers. I mean, think about rolling power plants all over the state.”

Could electric vehicles save us during a disaster?

If we had another statewide blackout, these rolling batteries could be called on to help.

“They can get it in a matter of seconds, way faster than you can get from a coal plant, way faster than you can get from natural gas,” Rowan said.

On top of that during severe weather, electric cars can be used as a safe haven.

Several Central Texans told KXAN they retreated to their electric cars during the winter storm to stay warm.

In February, as millions of Texans struggled for warmth, John Molloy turned to his electric vehicle.

“I think when the storm started, I had a pretty high state of charge. So I never had to plug it in to recharge it during the storm,” Molloy said.

Brian Lasseter and his family slept in their vehicle.

“It was a little more cramped in there with me and wife and our 13-year-old son, but it worked out okay because we were trying to stay warm.”

Many viewers shared similar stories with KXAN. “The car, I think, still had at least half a battery left by the time we were done,” Lasseter said.

People died during the winter storm while trying to stay warm in traditional gas-powered cars, killed by carbon monoxide released from their car’s exhaust. Electric cars do not produce carbon monoxide or exhaust.

Electric cars sound great, but could we even charge them?

“In order for people to be encouraged to switch their gas cars for electric ones, the infrastructure needs to be there to address range anxiety,” said Mirela Mohan, senior editor with Storage Café. She recently took a closer look at infrastructure in major metro areas across the country.

“Austin ranks as the fourth-best equipped metro in terms of EV infrastructure,” Mohan said. She found that Austin has 0.7 charging stations for every 1,000 households, and about 6% of apartment complexes have charging stations. That’s double the national average.

Outside the metros, charging stations are rarer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t travel if you own an EV. “People who are driving gas-powered cars are looking for gas stations right?” Lasseter said. “People who drive electric vehicles look for plugs and there are plugs everywhere.”

But not all charging stations are built the same.

“If I pull into the grocery store and I plug into one of those, I might get 2-3% while I’m shopping. Then it’s just not even worth the hassle,” Molloy said.

Three types of chargers exist today for electric vehicles. The first is your regular wall outlet, which can fully charge most EVs in about eight hours. The second is the type of outlet your washing machine uses. It can charge an electric car in four hours.

A traditional outlet can charge an EV in 8 hours, while a higher voltage one can take 4 hours.

On Electric Drive in downtown Austin, Austin Energy and the city’s Department of Transportation have installed the third type of charger, DC fast chargers. These chargers are built specifically for electric cars and can fully charge a car in about 20 minutes.

Despite installing them, Austin Energy says these chargers aren’t always best for your car or the grid. “Our general strategy is just enough. The slower you can charge, the better it is for affordability, grid integration and renewable integration,” Popham said.

Popham says that while access to public charging is important, 85% of charging happens at home, but that won’t always be the case.

The future of charging electric cars in Texas

“We really need to increase the network of fast charging along the highway,” Rowan said. “(My) car will charge here in my house fully in 10 hours, no one’s going to wait at a charging station in San Antonio, in a road trip, for 10 hours.”

Rowan says that the important thing to remember is we will not have millions of new electric cars on the road tomorrow. It will take at least 10 years for that to happen. We have time to prepare.

Rowan and Pecan Street have three recommendations for the federal and local governments to prepare:

Colin Rowan with Pecan Street has three recommendations for drivers and the government to prepare for electric cars

By taking these steps, Rowan believes we’ll be ready for the new electric future heading our way.

Incentives to go Electric

The federal government and Austin Energy have several incentives for people to make the leap to an electric vehicle:

  • $2,500-$7,500 Federal Tax Credit for purchasing an EV
  • Up to $1,000 Federal Tax Credit for installing a charging station
  • Up to $1,200 rebate from Austin Energy for installing a charging station

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

Check out the latest Emmy Award-winning weather lesson

More First Warning Weather University

Tracking the Coronavirus

Coronavirus Cases Tracker

Latest Central Texas COVID-19 Cases

Trending Stories

Don't Miss