Powering up highway charging stations

Typical plaza could use as much electricity as Gillette Stadium

DRIVING ALONG the Massachusetts Turnpike, electric vehicle charging stations are popping up at the service plazas, a harbinger of a future without internal combustion engines.

But a new study from National Grid suggests the charging stations are somewhat misleading indicators of the future. The real challenge will not be installing charging stations, but delivering the electricity needed to power those stations.

The study looked at 71 gas stops along major highways in Massachusetts and New York and attempted to calculate how much power would be needed at those locations to enable the shift to electric vehicles.

“What we found was we were off on the magnitude and the timing,” said Colette Lamontagne, director of clean energy development at National Grid. “The amount of load that was going to be required was significantly more than we thought and it’s going to be needed sooner than we thought.”

The study says electric vehicle adoption “has reached a tipping point. It is now accelerating toward mass market adoption, particularly in states [like Massachusetts and New York] taking proactive measures to encourage transportation electrification.”

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, the need for power to run charging stations is increasing. The challenge will become even greater as electric trucks take to the roads. Trucks present a special charging challenge; they require access to chargers capable of delivering huge amounts of electricity in a short amount of time.

By 2030, according to the National Grid study, the electrification of a highway gas station serving mostly passenger vehicles will require as much peak power as a professional sports stadium. By 2035, with electric trucks on the road, the power needs of a truck stop will equal that of a small town. And the power needs will only grow as more and more electric trucks head down the highway.

The only way to deliver that amount of power is by plugging into high-voltage transmission lines, which luckily often track parallel to highways.

Dave Mullaney of the RMI energy research institute, which collaborated with National Grid on the study, said power grids across the country should be able to accommodate the need for more electricity for transportation.

But Lamontagne said the transmission interconnections needed to deliver the electricity can take four to eight years to complete, which means state regulators and utilities like National Grid should get started now to avoid bottlenecks down the road.

“We don’t want to be hampering the adoption of electric vehicles,” Lamontagne said. “We want to be enabling it.”