George Mason faculty study the “energy justice” challenges of adding millions of new electric and hybrid vehicles to our electric grid

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Plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles are the future of automobiles, with car companies from Bentley to Volvo pledging to be all-electric within the next several years. While the EV charging infrastructure ramps up to keep up with this growing demand, Jie Xu, Associate Professor with the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research at George Mason University, is looking at an angle that not many have considered – the energy justice implications. His transdisciplinary team also includes Mason faculty members Wenying Ji (Civil, Environment, and Infrastructure Engineering), Fengxiu Zhang (Schar School of Policy and Governance), David Wong and Chaowei Yang (Geography & Geoinformation Science), Saba Siddiki from Syracuse University, and Feng Qiu from Argonne National Laboratory.

A row of white electrical-hybrid vehicles in a parking lot are plugged into charging stations
Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Photo by iStock images.

Energy justice refers to an energy system that fairly distributes both benefits and costs of energy services and that has “impartial” energy decision-making. Funded by a grant received from the National Science Foundation’s Strengthening American Infrastructure program, Xu’s team is working with local utilities, governments, and communities to develop and apply an energy justice approach from both techno-engineering and social perspectives to assessing and reducing potential injustice emanating from the transition to an EV future.

Xu notes that once people make the initial investment in buying an EV, the purchase will yield financial benefits in their overall energy consumption. But underprivileged people – many of whom do not own or cannot afford EVs (because EVs in general are more expensive than traditional gas-fueled automobiles) – will likely see their home electricity rates go up because of the overall increase in electricity loads thanks to the increasing number of EVs on the road.

Studies may take multiple angles to understand how EVs interact with the electric grid, according to Xu. He notes, “You have even heard people say that EVs will help improve the performance of the grid because you can use all these battery packs in the EVs as energy storage systems.”  But he adds, “It’s far from easy to expand the capacity of the grid, especially the transmission network. They will start by increasing electricity prices as demand increases.”

Ramping up the electricity distribution network is a big challenge that must be tackled, Xu says. “The electricity is generated far from where it is consumed. We would expect urban centers to use most electricity related to EVs, but that’s being produced by offshore windfarms or nuclear plants in the countryside.” The hope is the infrastructure will be built in a way to mitigate economic disparities. 

For a problem that involves a system of engineering systems, Xu stresses that engineering and science have to be very sound in order to make policy recommendations. “We’re looking at how technology is transforming the behavior of society. We have to know the electricity loads in the future and the penetration of EVs in daily life to understand how renewable energy will be added to the grid, and how the electricity generation will be distributed. Once this is right, we can help policymakers understand the consequences of their decisions.”

The $750k grant runs through August 2025, with a goal of developing new computational optimization and analytics tools to study the future electric grid and the implications of increased EVs on the road, as well as a policy guide providing socially and technically feasible solutions to reduce energy injustice in the transition to EVs.