Simanaitis Says

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GENERAL PROCLAMATIONS about the world’s coming adoption of electric vehicles have set ambitious goals. For example, governments around the world plan to ban gasoline and diesel vehicles within decades. However, micro tales are often as telling as macro views.

The editorial “EVs Lack a Robust Charging Grid” is in the October 2017 issue of Automotive Engineering, one of SAE International’s magazines. It’s written by Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Brooke, a guy whose opinions I have long respected, who gives an interesting near-term micro view of long-term macro EV scenerios.

A “barbequed transformer.” Image from Automotive Engineering, October 2017.

Lindsay’s lead: “The flames lit up the sky when the electric-power substation in my town blew up one night last August…. A transformer at the DTE Energy site had exploded, immediately knocking out power for over 4000 homes and businesses. More than 9000 residents dug out flashlights, lit candles, and sweated the summer heat.”

DTE Energy is the holding company formed in 1996 which evolved from Detroit Edison dating from the early 1900s.

Lindsay notes that “Two days after the fire, the town’s lights were back on and my beer was cold again.“ This was thanks to a convoy of flatbed trailers with five DTE emergency diesel-electric generators.

“But as I write this seven weeks later,” Lindsay observes, “the emergency generators are still powering the town. And the utility still doesn’t know for certain the cause of the explosion.”

“Did a squirrel gnaw through a cable?” Lindsay asks. “We never know in southeastern Michigan, where the electric grid is as dodgy as the proverbial Lucas light switch on old British cars. The switch with three settings—Dim, Flicker, and Off.”

His comment reminds me of other Lucas humor: Electricity is transmitted by smoke in a wire and ceases when the smoke leaks out. And, Brits like warm beer because they have Lucas refrigerators.

But back to southeastern Michigan’s dodgy electric grid. Lindsay asked on-site utility engineers what would occur if EV sales rapidly increased.

Lindsay reports: “ ‘Let me put it this way,’ the senior engineers began, ‘if you buy a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla today, and you’re the only one on your block who’s charging an EV, the local grid can handle it. But if two or three of your neighbors buy EVs, and that’s multiplied across thousands of blocks in dozens of towns, the local grid would be pushed to the brink of collapse. No way are we prepared for electric cars.’ ”

Lindsay says, “Where less than 5 percent of vehicles sold in 2016 in the U.S. were equipped with electrified powerplants, the industry aspires to have over 50 percent of all new models so equipped…. … the specter of transformers erupting becomes real.”

He continues, “That threat is not just in the U.S. Friends in Germany and the U.K. assert that their local electric grids are inadequate to support a rapid rise in EV charging. Will they be ready by 2040—the year chosen (perhaps by tossing darts at dates on a wall)?”

Volvo says that, beginning in 2019, it will built only electrified cars. (Note the term “electrified” includes hybrids as well as pure EVs.)

A Bosch engineer at September’s Frankfurt Auto Show talked with Lindsay about readiness: “Not unless we commit to massive re-engineering of our network for power generation and electricity distribution. It will cost billions and take decades.”

Noting how quickly automakers are developing electrified products, Lindsay concludes, “Now it’s time for the electric power utilities to deliver their half of the equation, if the EV dream is to be realized.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. 2vt
    October 20, 2017

    Score another point for the Chevrolet Volt. It carrys it’s own generator (which could be designed to use steam or even thorium as a generator).

    • simanaitissays
      October 20, 2017

      And perhaps score a point and a half for non-plug-in hybrids. They generate their own electricity completely and, thus, are utterly off-grid vehicles.

      • Victor R Van Tress
        October 21, 2017

        A friend stated that their Prius got 60mpg. I demonstrated that at 85k miles on it was affectedly not an electric car anymore but a stop-start at best by pushing the “run” button and then putting the car in forward. The engine started immediately and continued to run as it was driven. So it is as of this writing not an electric at all. The Volt, however will run it’s generator engine in much the same manner under the same conditions yet will be propelled by the electric motor. Next time you get into a taxi that is a Prius ask him to show you the lifetime average. It will be around 35mpg according to my 3 taxi sample. Your turn.

  2. simanaitissays
    October 21, 2017

    An interesting sample. I don’t understand the 85k lessening of hybrid activity. Others report Prius hybrid operation well beyond 150k. In any case, the off-grid argument stands, and each hybrid offers benefits. For views on future optimality, see “Reinventing the Automobile,” by Larry Burns, Chris Borroni-Bird (both of GM background) and MIT’s Bill Mitchell.

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