Grid CEO on EVs, what’s ‘doable’ with 100% clean power

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Arshad Mansoor, CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, has a direct view of how fast his industry is moving — and wants to move — toward a low-carbon future.

EPRI’s half-dozen laboratories and offices in the United States research clean energy advances, electrification of transportation and heating, cyberdefense, and smart-grid technologies.

In an interview with E&E News, Mansoor discussed improvements in electric vehicle batteries that he said should level out the sticker prices of EVs and conventional vehicles before the end of the decade.

But he pumped the brakes on expectations for a zero-carbon grid on the 2035 timetable declared by President Biden.

Born in Bangladesh, Mansoor received a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1994, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. He joined EPRI in 2006 and holds five patents with colleagues for work at the industry-backed nonprofit. He has a seriously competitive side that comes out at the pingpong table, associates say.

He talked about decarbonization efforts, battery technology and the future of his Tesla car’s charging speed:

President Biden’s goal is to rid the electric power sector of carbon emissions from coal and gas generators by 2035. Do you think that is doable?

Anything is doable if money is not a factor. We say, let’s just see what is doable reliably and affordably.

What would you call a “doable goal” on that basis?

Last year, we were emitting 5 gigatons of CO2 in the United States [equal to 5 billion metric tons from the entire economy]. That’s down 1 gigaton in 15 years. So if we don’t accelerate, then taking the 5 gigatons down to zero will take us 75 more years.

Why don’t we put a razor-sharp focus on how we can double the reduction? So instead of 1 gigaton in 15 years, let’s do two. Then in 2035, we are down to 3 gigatons. That’s an ambitious goal. Let’s optimize how you do that.

Clearly, the electric sector will have to be at the forefront. But of that 5 gigatons of CO2 in 2020, the largest emitter is transportation sector. Vehicle electrification is crucial.

You are bullish on the outlook for EVs? That’s where the auto industry’s growth is coming from.

We have been talking about EVs since [General Motors Co.] came up with EV1 in 1997. But it didn’t come for years.

If you want to build an EV that goes 300 miles between charges, typically you would need a 70-kilowatt-hour battery. In 2000 and the technology then, each kilowatt-hour cost $1,000. That’s $70,000 just for the cost of the battery, right?

Today, it’s $125 to $150 per kWh. So that $70,000 cost just became $10,000. That change has really opened the door.

Within the next 10 years, we could be reaching less than $100 per kWh.

We could see a battery pack with double the energy density, which means I need less weight [per kilowatt-hour of storage].

The cost reduction over the last 10 years has happened [primarily] with manufacturing improvements … but we’re also now seeing new chemistries in this world of lithium.

What is that going to mean for charging EVs?

It takes me about an hour to charge my Tesla with the Tesla network’s fast charger. In a five-year time frame, we may be able to charge a 300-mile car in 30 minutes.

[Checking his EV charging app on his phone.] I’m charging 16 mph right now.

Today, it’s like you have a cathode and an anode sandwich with a liquid electrolyte in the middle. The liquid chemistry [battery] has a lot of challenges, and it can’t really handle a very high transfer rate of ions. Now they are looking at solid-state electrolytes.

That will be like going from vacuum tubes in TVs to solid-state electronics. You could have a tremendous improvement in density [the battery energy per pound]. So people are saying we can double or triple the charge rate with a solid-state electrolyte.

If we go to solid state, in theory you could charge 400 miles in five to seven minutes, the same time it takes to fill a gasoline car now. That’s not going to happen in three to five years.

If one-third of new car sales are EVs in 15 years, how are utilities going to handle that?

If we are going to keep on the route we’re on now, where there is a step change but it’s somewhat gradual, then generation and transmission capacity can be there.

If it’s one transformer serving four houses, and each of the houses gets two EVs, then no. We can’t just put fast chargers everywhere and not think about how to optimize customers’ charging habits [with price incentives to charge at night when power is cheapest]. A big part of EPRI’s work is on advanced distribution planning to get ahead of the curve.

How confident are you that the cybersecurity threat for EVs and charging can be managed?

It is a big, big challenge. The biggest cybersecurity challenge is in the automotive industry. If you’re driving an electric vehicle, you are getting software updates every week. Imagine if somebody could break into that — if you can corrupt the car software so I can’t start it in the morning, and a million cars can’t start in the morning?

So are the right protection systems in place?

We have the right overview. It’s just that this threat is moving so fast, we have to play catch-up. The coordination between the electric sector and the transportation sector will need to start improving.

I’m also a big believer that we will figure it out, as we have figured it out in the banking and financial sector.

How is this shift to EVs affordable for most people?

When we talk about this EV opportunity, an average U.S. household has income of $45,000 a year and two cars. They spend roughly $4,500 on their energy bill. That’s 10% of their income. Of that, approximately $2,200 is gasoline. Roughly $1,000 is electricity. The remainder is natural gas. So that’s their energy bill.

If we start cleaning the grid more and more, and electrify vehicles, even with today’s energy costs and today’s average electric price, that household will save $1,000. The $4,500 energy bill is going to go to $3,500 because the cost to drive your car will go down by two-thirds.

The electrical cost is going to go up, and that will allow us to reinforce the grid infrastructure.

Today, we have around 200 gigawatts of wind and solar generation, which produces 8% of our electrical energy. Our analysis is showing that by 2030, we could have four to five times that amount. That would mean that almost 30% to 40% of the energy coming into our grid is from wind and solar.

With that much extra solar and wind, the best place to store would be if we had 30 million EVs and all public buses are electrified, and we store it at the right time in the vehicles.

Maybe we get to 80% carbon-free generation, not all the way. If you try to go to 100% too quickly, it will impact the price of electricity, which will deter electrification. So you really have to look at it in an integrated way.

What does that mean?

If you’re a public utility commission and you’re looking at rates, you’re looking at electric and [natural] gas, but you may not be looking at gasoline. State public utility commissions will have a critical role for innovation in the regulatory side.

On this path toward decarbonization — which we think the new administration will accelerate considerably — it has to be done with an integrated view that looks at electricity, natural gas, petroleum, the entire integrated energy network. You can’t just look at whether your electric bill went up.

This clean energy transition cannot be just for me and others who can buy an electric vehicle today. It has to be there for average U.S. households and the underserved communities. For them to take the full advantage of an electric vehicle, the cost will have come down and reach parity with conventional vehicles.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.