How California is preparing its grid to handle the transition to electric vehicles

·10 min read

When California sent out cellphone alerts in late August asking residents during a heat wave to reduce their energy usage during peak demand time and refrain from charging their electric vehicles, skeptics were quick to sow doubt about the electricity grid’s ability to feed an all-EV future fleet.

“This from the same state that’s going to force everyone to buy electric cars by 2035,” House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., tweeted. “This is what Democrat control looks like — and they want it nationwide. What a joke.”

States like California undoubtedly need to build capacity to meet the growing demand for electricity that will accompany a transition from gasoline-powered cars to EVs. Most experts have a more optimistic view than Scalise, however, and believe that the lights will stay on if utility companies adopt the right policies in the years to come. But that’s a big if.

Rep. Steve Scalise raises his index finger, in front of several American flags.
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at a press conference after a weekly caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol Building on July 19 in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“Everyone sees electric vehicles coming,” Garrett Fitzgerald, senior director of electrification at the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a nonprofit with utility companies among its members, told Yahoo News. “If you electrified all cars magically overnight, would the grid be able to handle it? The answer would be no. But that's not going to happen. This transition of over 300 million vehicles is going to take decades. So we have the time to make this investment.”

The market share of electric vehicles is growing rapidly: There were 70,871 EVs sold in the United States in August, a 43% increase from August 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While EVs are 6% of new car sales nationally, the variation between states is wide. California has the largest percentage of EVs of any state, with 15.8% of the cars sold there in the second quarter this year being fully electric. The state has mandated that all cars sold there by 2035 produce zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits of up to $7,500 for consumers making less than $150,000 per year buying EVs manufactured in North America that cost less than $55,000 for a sedan and $80,000 for a van, pickup truck or SUV. Estimates of the likely share of new U.S. car sales that will be electric by the end of the decade range from 34% to 52%.

The electricity grids in many states, meanwhile, face challenges from rising global temperatures. Due to more extreme weather, the number of weather-related power outages in the United States increased 78% over the last decade. A new poll by the energy company Goal Zero found that 31% of Americans “are concerned about the possibility of power outages in their home.”

Eighteen lines of traffic back up before the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza.
Traffic backs up at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza on Aug. 24 in Oakland, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mitigating the severity of climate change, however, requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions by relying on even more electricity, experts say. Eliminating emissions in sectors like transportation, heating and industrial processes such as cement production requires powering them with electricity, instead of fossil fuels. That’s why California hasn’t just set a 2035 cut-off for phasing out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars, it also aims to produce 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2045.

A 2020 Princeton University study estimated that for the United States as a whole to meet its promises to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, it will need to increase transmission capacity by roughly 60% by 2030.

“Clearly, there needs to be more transmission, more storage and more capacity across the board,” Robbie Orvis, senior director of modeling and analysis at the think tank Energy Innovation, told Yahoo News. “More work is needed by states there to make sure the capacity is there to make sure it’s there when it’s needed.”

Many experts such as Orvis say they are confident that the U.S. energy grid will be able to meet the growing reliance on electricity, for two reasons. First, demand is not going to suddenly and unexpectedly spike. The transition to electric vehicles will be gradual. And the IRA has other subsidies for clean energy production that will boost the availability of power.

Five Tesla cars charge up at an outdoor Tesla station.
A line of Tesla cars charge up on July 17 in Nephi, Utah. With more electric cars on the road, lack of charging infrastructure is becoming a problem for EV owners. (George Frey/Getty Images)

“The incremental electricity load in our modeling is quite low,” Orvis said. “So I don’t particularly see any problem, especially if you start thinking about all the cost-effective new capacity that we think will be built under the IRA.”

Analysts also note that most cars are parked for around 23 hours per day, several times longer than it takes to charge the average EV, so charging can be done at times when the grid isn’t under the most stress from less flexible demands, such as air conditioning.

“These [California] alerts have existed for a while and are not targeted at EV; all flexible loads were asked to be delayed,” Fitzgerald said. “Most utilities today have programs where it’s cheaper to charge your vehicle at certain times of day, called ‘time-of-use pricing.’”

Those programs incentivize charging at times when there is less demand being placed on the energy grid, such as overnight or earlier in the day. The problem with charging at night, however, is that solar power generation disappears when the sun goes down.

“In addition to EVs, we’re building housing at the fastest clip ever in state history,” California Assembly member Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from the Central Coast, told Yahoo News. “It’s getting hotter, so you’ve got more AC units on the grid as well. … And we need to produce more electrons, simply put, or import them.

“Presently, we import a tremendous amount of our power, especially at night, which is when people tend to plug in their EVs and charge them,” Cunningham added. “It’ll shift some of the load increasingly over to the nighttime hours, when California’s solar production drops to zero after dark.”

As many as a dozen arrays of solar panels stretch out on the roof of a building, with a backdrop of mountains.
Solar panels on the roof of a building in Los Angeles in June. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office dismissed the notion that power outages could be caused by EVs, noting that cars account for only a small share of electricity consumption.

“This idea that moving toward [zero emissions vehicles] is to blame for the grid strain is moronic,” a spokesperson for Newsom, Alex Stack, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “Right now, electric cars make up just 0.4% of demand during peak hours; by 2035, electric cars are estimated to account for 4% of demand. Extreme weather is what’s causing our energy challenges. Extreme heat strains the grid, fires trip transmission lines, and drought reduces our ability to generate hydroelectric power.”

Those stresses, combined with rising demand for electricity, could make it harder for states like California to meet their own goals for retiring fossil fuel or nuclear plants if they cannot sacrifice the generating capacity. This summer, to avoid rolling blackouts like those that struck California in the summer of 2020, its Legislature appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to buy emergency power from natural gas-fired power plants. And, at Newsom’s request, lawmakers agreed to postpone the closure of Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear power plant, by loaning $1.4 billion to Pacific Gas & Electric, the Northern California utility, for safety upgrades needed to keep it operational.

But the Newsom administration said that it plans to increase clean energy generation enough to meet the demands of its EV deployment and other goals.

“Between now and 2035, we’re going to TRIPLE California’s current electricity grid capacity,” Stack wrote. “To do this, we’ll need to sustain its expansion of clean electricity generation capacity at a record-breaking rate, adding up to 6 gigawatts of new renewable and storage resources annually — for reference over the last decade, the state has built on average 1 GW of utility solar and 300 [megawatts] of wind per year. Over the next three years, electricity providers regulated by the [California Public Utility Commission] will add another 8 GW of clean energy resources.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom surrounded by supporters in front of a dais saying: More Housing, Faster.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, at a press conference on Sept. 28 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California is undoubtedly making progress in producing renewable energy — it produces 30% of the national output of solar power — but a lack of storage capacity prevents it from relying on wind and solar power when it’s needed most.

“It all comes down to this problem of: It’s not how much energy we have, it’s the when and the where the energy is being produced,” James Bushnell, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis, recently told the Washington Post. “Particularly the solar resources — it’s just in the wrong places and at the wrong times.”

“What we have not done yet, and what we need to do, is streamline permitting for new renewable resources and storage,” Cunningham said. “If you’re going run a modern electricity grid … you’ve got to couple renewable power, which is wind and solar primarily, with storage facilities: battery storage, pump storage, gravitational storage, underground storage.”

While a congressional effort to simplify and speed-up federal permitting for energy projects just failed, Cunningham said California has its own work to do on that front.

“The feds have jurisdiction [over wind power] when it’s out in the ocean, but as you bring the lines in to state waters and onto shore, connect it with the substations that get the electricity flowing into the grid, you’re talking about a whole panoply of state agencies that have jurisdiction over that,” he said.

PG&E said it is adapting to EVs, in part by using them as storage for clean energy, which is known as “vehicle-grid integration.” For example, it's possible to charge an EV in the morning, when the sun is bright and demand is low, and then plug it into the grid and send energy back to it when demand peaks in the evening.

Logo saying Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Close-up of the logo on the headquarters of the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric in San Ramon, Calif. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

“As part of our 2030 targets, we’re aiming to proactively prepare the grid for 12,000 [gigawatt hours] of EV-related electric load and improve processes to enable rapid, safe EV energization and interconnection,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “We’re also working to enable 2 million EVs to participate in vehicle-grid integration applications, allowing EVs to be a cornerstone of both reliability and resilience.”

PG&E also says it is managing the time of EV charging and lowering its cost “through innovative rate structures.”

Some Californians are skeptical of reassurances from their utility companies. Mistrust runs high, especially of PG&E. In 2018, a faulty transmission line owned by PG&E started a massive fire that killed 85 people. The next year, the company instituted widespread rolling blackouts, prompting criticism from customers and lawmakers, who said the company should have been better prepared for the fire danger that precipitated the shutdown.

Ultimately, utilities can only show customers they will be able to charge their car and meet all their other needs by planning ahead and meeting the challenge.

“Everybody has to be focused on this problem,” Ari Kahn, carbon-free mobility manager of the think tank RMI, told Yahoo News. “We do have to make the grid ready. … Utilities are going to have to move a lot faster to support much larger [electricity] loads much more frequently than they’re used to.”

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