Extremists and nature itself expose grid vulnerabilities for electric vehicles

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida Headshot
Electrify America charger down offline
Grid vulnerabilities can lead to more unavailable chargers.
Tom Quimby

You may have seen the news this week about two extremists arrested for plotting to sabotage an electrical grid in Baltimore, Maryland.

A Florida man (here we go again) and a woman in Maryland had allegedly conspired to cripple power in the important seaport which is home to over 500,000 residents. Thankfully, the FBI intervened and pulled the plug on their plan to shoot up multiple substations which suspect Sarah Beth Clendaniel of Catonsville, MD said “would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully.” Unfortunately, law enforcement can’t always prevent these diabolical attacks. On Dec. 30, USA Today published an alarming story with the headline, “Attacks on power substations are growing. Why is the electric grid so hard to protect?”

The first graph alone speaks to troubling weakness of large grid systems: “Even before Christmas Day attacks on power substations in five states in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast, similar incidents of attacks, vandalism and suspicious activity were on the rise.”

For any fleet or consumer considering switching to an all-electric vehicle, this is not exactly encouraging news. Charging stations are having enough issues as it is with availability and now factor in grid-hating extremists and the risk of transitioning to EVs grows even higher.

[Related: Charging makes all the difference for the Ford F-150 Lightning]

Long before these substation attacks were making headlines, I was concerned about the vulnerabilities large grid systems pose at the hands of not only callous extremists but also major natural events like storms and earthquakes.

Florida is second only to California in terms of EV adoption and ranks as the lightning capital of the country. A few years back at the L.A. Auto Show, I asked a major EV charging company why they weren’t busy rolling out chargers in Florida where the flat topography and temperate climate seemed ideal for EV expansion. The response? Lightning. They had been having trouble with lightning in the Sunshine State.

Utilities do offer protection against lightning strikes, but the typical bolt which weather.gov says delivers a 300-million volt blast at 30,000 amps doesn’t always play nice with surge arrestors and lightning rods. Costly damage can still occur.

Hurricanes here can also interrupt power sometimes for weeks at a time. Following Category Five Hurricane Michael in 2018, we lost power for two weeks. Others in our area went without power even longer than that.

Since diesel was sequestered for government use following Hurricane Michael, we had to make long trips outside of town to fill up our tanks to keep the diesel generator going. Local trash haulers relied more on our city’s one compressed natural gas station to keep their trucks moving.

Historically, when the power goes out in Florida owed to devastating storms, trucks keep going thanks to liquid and gaseous fuels including propane. For EV owners at the time, internal combustion never looked so good. 

While fleets and utilities are working more on setting up microgrids to help lessen dependency on larger and more complex grids, it’s a costly transition that can take additional time and space. Microgrids rely on back-up battery power that can be energized by on-site solar panels or internal combustion or hydrogen fuel cell generators.

The notion of powering one’s fleet with an independent power source can not only lower the risk of power interruption but can also lower energy cost. For instance, fleets that generate their own electricity on site can sell unused electricity back to a local utility. I wrote a about a truck fleet in Southern California that has been doing just that. Dependable Highway Express in Ontario told me that they were able to charge their electric Volvo VNR trucks and power their building with a solar-powered microgrid. At that time in August of 2021, they were producing so much power that they were able to sell 50 to 60% of that unused power back to their utility. Not bad especially now as utility rates continue to rise in California and elsewhere.

Keep an eye on DHE and other fleets as they transition to electric trucks. The important matter of keeping trucks charged up during outages whether brought on by extremists or other events will become even more critical as these zero-emission workhorses continue to roll out.