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California’s Electric Vehicle Dream Has A Major Problem

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom last week announced that the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines would be banned from 2035 in the state administration’s latest effort to reduce its carbon footprint. The move was praised by environmentalists and carmakers alike - the latter already having committed billions to build an EV presence.  But there is one problem the Golden State might want to fix by 2035 if the ban is to work: its power supply.

Last month, California was threatened by the first rolling blackouts in about two decades as a heatwave led to a spike in electricity consumption. This, in turn, revealed that the state’s demand exceeded its supply - including imported electricity - and ignited a debate about whether it had grown its renewable energy generation capacity too aggressively for its own good.

The debate is important if California plans on letting millions of EVs on its roads in less than two decades. These EVs will add to the demand for electricity, and there is no guarantee whatsoever they would need this electricity in off-peak hours. In the meantime, California will continue expanding its renewable capacity but likely not gas capacity. According to some, this could be a problem because gas provides an essential baseload when solar and wind can’t supply power to the grid. Others, however, have brushed off these concerns.

The president of the California Independent System Operator, the state grid’s manager, recently told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that the problem was more complex than some made it out to be. A shortage of imports and mostly the fact that California’s grid operates “too close to the margin” were at the heart of the outages.

“We knew coming into the day on Friday that we were going to be tight, but that’s not unusual,” Stephen Berberich told the LA Times. “We’re often tight. And imports generally take care of the gap. In this case, because it was hot in the West, we weren’t able to get the imports we would normally get. Renewables are not at the heart of the issues we had on Friday night.”

Yet renewables do bear improvement in the form of batteries, which, according to Berberich, could help with the load problem. However, they won’t solve it on their own. Solar, he noted, is not available 24/7. In fact, “Solar has virtually no value in the net peak hours, in the evening.” This intermittency has plagued solar - and, perhaps to a lesser extent, wind - for years. Batteries are getting bigger and better, but they have a long way to go before they can completely replace power plants with a constant supply of fuel.

In other words, the California grid is quite vulnerable to outages, especially during the summer season. This summer, when authorities asked Californians to conserve energy to prevent blackouts, they did. But can the authorities prescribe EV charging times to alleviate the load on the grid? This will hardly work with millions of people.

Related: World’s No.1 Oil Trader Sees Crude Inventories Shrinking This Year

Electricity demand in California could jump by 25 percent if all passenger vehicles on its roads are electric, the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold wrote last week, citing calculations done by experts. This is a major demand increase even if it is hypothetical: California will not be banning existing ICE cars from the road, only new sales. Sales of used ICE cars will also be allowed after 2035. But the goal is clear enough: make EVs the dominant mode of transportation. And this will cost the grid.

There has been an idea to use EVs to actually supply power to the grid when needed, but it has been fraught with problems that, for now, make it impractical. That’s all right because the millions of EVs that the idea envisages as grid supporters have yet to hit the road. For now, the only other idea about how to cope with the situation is adapting the grid to the higher demand: upgrading the transmission and distribution equipment to handle the stronger demand from households, since most EVs are charged at home.

One utility, the WSJ’s Gold reported, has also suggested incentivizing people to charge their cars during off-peak hours to avoid overloading the grid. For now, the best time to do this seems to be the middle of the day. Trying to make millions of people charge their EVs during the middle of the day could be challenging despite any incentives utilities might think of. And in case it does work, the additional EVs would just turn into another peak demand period, potentially threatening more outages in its own right since most drivers would want to fast-charge their EVs if they would be charging them at noon instead of at night, at home.

Reconciling California’s grid vulnerability with its EV ambitions will require a lot of work—work that needs to get underway now. Currently, EVs comprise just a tenth of California’s car demand. This may change by 2035, and with the proper incentives, it probably will. So, the grid needs to be prepared for the surge in EVs that would need charging because the heatwaves during the summer are unlikely to go away.

By Irina Slav for Oilpirce.com

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  • Carlos Everett on September 28 2020 said:
    I am all for trying to save the planet but we are getting ahead of the problem with existing technology, CA needs to re-think the Nat Gas issue as it is cheaper then renewables right now and it also can resolve the next 15 years, while reducing climate change which, i am still not convinced that CO2 is a problem.

    If you do not think my comment is accurate, then look at the article on CO2 where it says it delivers necessary earth saving metals from the core of the earth and then CO2 disipates as it delivers the necessary metals to the surface.

    Nat gas will be around for 30-50 years and current prices on nat gas companies are ridicuosly cheap as stupid ETF's and mainline Vanguard/Fidelity/ and other mutual funds are ignoring fossil fuels as they think all fossil fuels are alike. Thank you for the opportunity!!!!!!
  • Mark Campbell on September 29 2020 said:
    Thanks Irina for the great article targeting a real concern here. I wish California would hire you as a consultant and part of a team to get their grid up to par with a the coming demand.
  • Peter Farley on September 29 2020 said:
    1. Most people in California drive less than 35 miles a day and a typical EV will use about 250 Wh per mile so a 7 kW charger will charge you vehicle in a little over an hour per day. In workplace carparks a single phase charger with 8 leads can trickle charge 8 vehicles while only drawing 7 kW. Alternatively at only 5kW most people can charge their car in less than two hours per week, at home, the mall, on street parking at parking meters etc. Such flexibility means that there are huge opportunities for smart charging and businesses to provide free charging during the day to entice customers so spreading charging time isn't difficult to match power availability isn't a big issue. Similar arrangements can be made for drayage trucks, buses, ride share vehicles etc that they charge when they are stopped
    2. California's existing grid is designed to handle about 55 GW while average demand is 285,000 GWh, so on average the grid runs at 60% capacity. If demand is increased by 25% then the grid would still be running at less than 75% capacity.
    3. Even if EV market share ramps up smoothly to 100% by 2035, it will take a further 10 years before the fleet is 95% electric so the grid modernisation project can be spread over 25 years so no big deal. Even if it was all conventional coal and gas generation that would be no faster than the state installed capacity in the 50s and 60s
    4. By 2035 70% of free standing houses will not only have enough solar to provide household energy demand but to provide most of the capacity to charge two EVs as well. Malls and their carparks and factories and warehouses will have solar roofs and carparks so possibly 20% of demand will be supplied behind the meter.
    Ongoing energy efficiency mandates and the large reduction in demand from the fossil fuel industry itself will probably see non-transport electricity demand fall y 0.5-1.5% per year. Combined with the increase in behind the meter supply, it will probably mean that the whole transport industry can be accommodated with no significant increase in grid supply.
    5. To supply peak demand Californian electricity rates will be designed to incentivise east-west and particularly west facing solar and wind farms that exposed to evening sea or mountain breezes. Even if there was no change in existing demand a dozen 1.2 GW offshore wind farms like those being built in the North Sea could supply slightly more than the predicted transport demand, according to the old NREL study there is enough unshaded roof space to supply about 30% of demand. However the NREL study relied on 16% efficient panels, 19% is the standard now and 24% is only a few years away so by 2035 rooftop solar could be supplying 40% of demand, leaving total grid supply at a lower level than today even if most transport was electrified

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