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Is California’s Grid Up for Powering Many More Electric Cars?

California has made its historic decision to ban the sale of new cars that run on gas after 2035. But putting millions of green-energy vehicles on the road poses challenges some experts say could complicate the decision.

Green and black illustration of the silhouette of an electric vehicle plugged in to charge.
Shutterstock/Paul Craft
(TNS) — California has made its historic decision to outlaw the sale of new cars that run on gas or diesel after 2035. But putting millions of green-energy vehicles on the road poses challenges and concerns that some experts say could complicate the state’s decision.

Among them: that electric cars will be too expensive, charging stations won’t be plentiful, and an all-electric fleet will put additional pressure on the state’s fragile power grid.

The grid’s vulnerability became painfully apparent during two nights of rolling blackouts in the August 2020 heatwave — and near blackouts in July 2021.

The state relies heavily on solar and other renewables, which become less reliable during periods of high demand — particularly during heatwaves in the early evening as air conditioners continue to blast while the sun sets.

Earlier this year Alice Reynolds, president of the Public Utilities Commission, said, “Climate change is putting Californians at risk of further outages.” These pressures prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to ask the Legislature to loan PG&E Corp. $1.4 billion to keep Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear plant, open another 10 years past its planned closure in 2025.

In written comments to the California Air Resources Board, which approved the sweeping new vehicle regulations Thursday, the Western States Petroleum Association said “electrification of the transportation sector will increase demand by around 300,000 gigawatt-hours statewide,” which would amount to doubling electricity demands.

Jan Smutny-Jones of the Independent Energy Producers, an alliance of power generators, said “resources are very tight” and added: “As the owner of three Volts, I would ask the state to look in-depth at how we accomplish these goals. Transitions are complicated.” Volts are plug-in hybrids made by Chevrolet.

Yet officials from the California Energy Commission said electric vehicle charging will “add only a small amount of demand onto the grid” and vehicle-related electricity demand is forecasted to make up less than 3% of energy use during peak hours in 2030.

“The Energy Commission is working to support this vision by preparing to deploy nearly $4 billion in EV infrastructure while optimizing charging to help the electric grid,” said Commission Chairman David Hochschild in a statement.

The ruling was passed in a widely anticipated vote after several hours of public comment by industry, advocacy, and scientific stakeholders.

Air board members hailed the significance of the decision and pledged to make it work in the years ahead. “We will not set up Californians to fail,” said board member Tania Pacheco-Werner.

And Newsom — who initiated the regulations with an executive order two years ago — said the transition will be smooth.

“With the historic $10 billion we’re investing to accelerate the transition to ZEVs, we’re making it easier and cheaper for all Californians to purchase electric cars. California will continue to lead the revolution towards our zero-emission transportation future,” he said in a statement.

The regulation requires 35% of all new cars sold in the state by 2026 be either zero-emission, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered. That percentage would increase to 68% in 2030 and 100% by 2035, setting California on track to meet its ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

The board could fine manufacturers $20,000 for every vehicle short of their target in a given year.

Newsom and regulators have looked to the transportation sector in its efforts to combat climate change, in large part because cars and trucks are responsible for half of greenhouse gas emissions in California and 80% of smog-causing pollutants. The new regulations would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars by more than 50% in 2040, according to air quality officials.

But other analysts said CARB regulators’ vision relies on overoptimistic assumptions about electric vehicle pricing, grid reliability, and supply chain capability. Karl Brauer of iSeeCars, an automotive search engine and research site, said that like the zero emission vehicle standards that California sought to enforce since the 90’s, he expects these to be revised to more “realistic” expectations.

“There are limiting factors to EV production and sales right now,” he said, pointing to high lithium prices and supply chain backlogs,” Brauer said. “And thank god, because if there weren’t, and people were buying them as rapidly as the government wanted them to, the grid would probably get overburdened.”

Grid reliability is also a concern as California utilities regulators consider a significant reduction in the incentives paid to homeowners with rooftop solar panels.

“If you’re undermining the solar market you might have to rely on natural gas or other things to charge the automobiles,” said Grant Smith, an energy policy advisor with the Environmental Working Group. “This isn’t easy, it takes a lot of planning... a decentralized centralized electric system is critical for the state in terms of having a resilient system.”

Yet climate advocates like Kathy Harris, a clean vehicles expert at the National Resources Defense Council, lauded the plan as a “common sense” way to ensure future climate progress and address California’s uniquely poor air pollution with the help of federal infrastructure dollars.

Because the new regulations don’t kick in until 2026, “There there is some time to figure out where the gaps are. But we’ve seen that investments coming to the federal government are actually sufficient to help to support infrastructure at least for the first several years of the program,” said Harris.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said the company is “well into our journey to prepare the grid for growing electrification” and installing vehicle charging ports at commercial and multi-family residential buildings to prepare the grid for 12,000 of vehicle-related electric load.

© 2022 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.