Electric Road Trip

EVs, rural America and the future of a grid

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The Southwest Power Pool saw wind turbines transform its region over the past decade, bringing a growing source of electricity to Middle America. Electric vehicles could fuel another evolution — especially if they take off in rural areas.

Change is nothing new for SPP, whose roots date to World War II and the need for enough power to produce aluminum. Today, SPP manages the grid in a large swath of the country and has members in 14 states, including Oklahoma, Iowa and North Dakota. It's also planning a new Western energy market.

We visited the grid operator's headquarters here yesterday and found employees eager to explore the implications of EVs. Electric cars and trucks could be a great fit at night to help soak up renewable energy, with more than 21 gigawatts of wind power installed in SPP's region. EV batteries also could serve as a form of energy storage to help power the grid during the day.

Experts here pointed to a few reasons wind exploded in SPP's region, including about $10 billion worth of transmission projects that were approved and largely installed. There's also a competitive wholesale market and balancing responsibility intended to make sure withdrawals and injections of power balance out.

SPP remains focused on reliability, and it studies what transmission infrastructure may be needed to handle future needs. The challenge is that electric cars are mobile, so SPP doesn't know where their impact will emerge.

"This is a very interesting time for transmission planning," said Casey Cathey, manager of reliability planning at SPP. "You can't build a transmission line tomorrow."

Cathey noted that companies and cities could look at their delivery trucks and school bus fleets. If they're electric, they could send power back to the grid.

David Kelley, director of seams and market design at SPP, noted that companies such as Google and Walmart have participated in the market. "We expect that trend to continue — that more and more nontraditional stakeholders and members will take an interest in how we develop our markets and our transmission," he said.

Richard Dillon, SPP's director of market policy, said autonomous vehicles could justify higher EV penetration in rural areas, where people often drive long distances to get to and from work. The future might mean a household has two EVs and a "toy" such as a conventional truck, he said.

"My personal idea is that we will see the EVs when we have the autonomous, and we will see at least one major toy in every garage to go out to deer camps and things like that," Dillon said.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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