Electric vehicles escaped last week’s gasoline shortage – but the next cyberattack could wipe them out instead

Electric vehicles received a boost earlier this month when the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies 45% of the fuel to the East Coast, was shut down by a ransomware attack. The crisis has resulted in “dangerous levels of complacency among Tesla owners,” as late-night host Seth Meyers suggested. But EV drivers shouldn’t be so happy with themselves, experts say.

“The Colonial pipeline hack is an example of how vulnerable our… infrastructure is,” said Susan Bell, Director – Americas Refining and Marketing, IHS Markit. But the larger energy grid – including the power grid – is vulnerable to both digital attacks and physical problems, she added, with potentially “devastating” results.

As part of his electrification campaign, President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Ford’s new Red Electric Vehicle Center on Tuesday, a facility that will begin producing the Lightning, a fully electric version of the full-size F-150 pickup from the Car manufacturer.

Biden is making electric vehicles a cornerstone of its environmental agenda, with the administration’s $ 174 billion proposed infrastructure plan dedicated to providing incentives for electric vehicles and building a nationwide network of 500,000 charging stations.

It has been more than four decades since the United States was hit by a pair of oil embargoes in the Middle East. While the country is now less dependent on foreign oil supplies, a series of problems have arisen in recent months to show that motorists still run the risk of disrupting gas supplies. There have been refinery problems, pipeline problems, and even a shortage of tanker drivers to get the fuel to the pump.

For proponents of electric vehicles, these are just one more reason why the United States should accelerate the shift from internal combustion engine to electric drive technology.

“If you drive an electric car, it won’t affect you,” US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said at a White House press conference last week, referring to colonial hacking.

But the country’s electricity grid is far from secure. The Texas ice storm left parts of the states in darkness for over a week. California utilities have been forced to disrupt electricity on several occasions due to storms or to prevent equipment from starting wildfires. The state also faced continual power outages a few years ago due to power supply shortages.

Much of the power grid has been in place since the 1950s and 1960s, according to industry data, with some sections actually dating back to the late 19th century.

The massive SolarWinds cyberattack saw a number of utilities hacked, but none were shut down – either by luck or through careful planning. There hasn’t been a successful cyberattack on bulk energy in the past 15 to 20 years, according to Joy Ditto, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, but it “doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

While electric utilities are the only sector of infrastructure required to meet strict cybersecurity standards, “we don’t think this is the end of the story,” Ditto said. “We have to be in a kind of posture of continuous improvement in our sector, given its importance.”

The ongoing shift to battery-electric vehicles will test the reliability of America’s electric infrastructure like never before, experts say. Until recently, plug-based models were relative rarities. But new models like the GMC Hummer pickup and Lucid Air will hit highways nationwide early next year, with dozens more to follow.

Estimates vary widely, but some research groups, including JD Power and IHS Markit, estimate that 30% of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2030 could be electric.

The extent of the impact this will have is a matter of intense debate.

“The transition to electric propulsion will be a decades-long approach and, as a result, the transition in grid behavior will be slow,” said Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, one of the nation’s largest charging companies. “As long as the daily load of vehicles is managed, it can be modulated according to the load of the network that already exists.”

One of the reasons for Romano’s optimism is his hope that 80% of EV owners will charge their vehicles at night, and mostly from home, benefiting from a general surplus of off-peak production capacity. Many utilities have attempted to encourage this behavior by offering customers significant overnight energy discounts.

The Energy Ministry has estimated that the demand for electricity – much of that for electric vehicles – could increase by 38% by 2050.

But not everyone is so optimistic. As the adoption of electric vehicles increases, there could be millions of people without access to home chargers and therefore dependent on the use of public charging during the day. A 2019 study by the Energy Ministry estimated that demand for electricity – much of that for electric vehicles – could increase by 38% by 2050.

This surge could happen even faster in parts of the country, such as California and Washington, where sales of electric vehicles have grown the fastest. Seattle, for example, hopes that a third of its drivers will be riding electric vehicles by the end of this decade.

About Robert Pierson

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