California Plans ‘Massive Scale-up’ of Grid for 90% Electric Vehicles By 2035

Source: By Meghan Roos, Newsweek • Posted: Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Meeting the goals California has set in terms of electric vehicle use will require significant infrastructure investments and a recalibration of how and when vehicle owners use energy so they can avoid steep utility bills and help protect the state’s power grid.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced last fall that all cars and passenger trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission by 2035. The goal will require a big shift for California drivers, more than 85% of whom were still driving gas- and diesel-powered vehicles in 2019, according to the California New Car Dealers Association’s California Auto Outlook.

The California Air Resources Board in late May mapped out additional requirements for ride-hailing companies, which must use electric vehicles for at least 90% of all miles driven by 2030.

EV charging sign

“California plans on using rates to help drive the charging behaviors that are going to help the state electrify transportation while cutting carbon from the grid and saving ratepayers and drivers money,” the California Energy Commission’s Patty Monahan said. The pressure is on for California drivers to embrace electric vehicles after Governor Gavin Newsom announced last year the state will no longer allow sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

To meet these goals, the lead commissioner on clean transportation at the California Energy Commission (CEC), Patty Monahan, estimated 8 million electric cars and passenger trucks will be needed by 2030, as well as about 1.2 million chargers to fuel them.

“That really is going to entail a massive scale-up,” Monahan told Newsweek. California currently has about 70,000 chargers and funding for another 120,000, Monahan said, but big investments in electric vehicle infrastructure will still be needed in order to meet the state’s goals.

The CEC is in charge of evaluating California’s energy needs and has been tasked with identifying what kinds of investments will be necessary in order to meet Newsom’s 2035 deadline. A lot of changes need to be made in the next 13 years, but Monahan said she is confident the state will succeed.

“It’s really the scale of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure: making sure that we have the right investments in battery electric vehicles and in fuel cell electric vehicles to meet the transition from internal combustion vehicles into an electrified transportation future,” Monahan said.

“I’m confident that a mix of public-private investments can set us on course to be able to meet these goals,” she added.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal includes $1.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure. In addition to Newsom’s suggested spending, Monahan said there also appears to be “appetite” within the state legislature to support the push for electric vehicles.

Access to chargers is another piece of the puzzle on which Monahan said the CEC is “laser-focused,” as is the state’s Air Resources Board and the California Public Utilities Commission. According to researcher Matthew Moniot of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), making sure all California residents have access to electric vehicle infrastructure will be a “huge issue” as the state continues its push toward electric vehicle adoption.

Solar farm in California

The aerial view of a solar farm in Simi Valley is photographed in California. California leads the nation in solar energy generation, according to an assessment by ChooseEnergy.com. Sam Lafoca/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

“Today, EVs are disproportionately driven by homeowners,” Moniot said. “That’s largely because homeowners have money to buy new cars. But also, the experience is just way more positive if you have the authority to put in an overnight charging plug.”

That’s not the case for residents who rent their homes, many of whom don’t have designated parking spaces.

“If every car has to be electric, we really need to have solutions for individuals that don’t have this more reliable parking situation at night,” Moniot said.

The initial purchase of an electric vehicle can also serve as a barrier to entry for some California residents because the vehicles tend to be priced higher than their gas- or diesel-fueled counterparts. That price difference is likely to shrink over time as the demand for electric vehicles grows and the market thus becomes more competitive, Monahan said.

While electric vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions—more than half of the state’s carbon pollution currently comes from transportation, according to Newsom’s office—their use is expected to place pressure on California’s power grid. According to Reuters, America’s increasing reliance on electric vehicles will require significant energy investments across the country, with the NREL estimating the U.S.’ energy generation will need to double by 2050 in order to keep up with demand.

Moniot told Newsweek California has grown more energy efficient in recent years with help from renewable sources like wind and solar. California generates more solar energy than any other state, according to an assessment by ChooseEnergy.com, and President Joe Biden announced in late May an investment in offshore wind projects off the northern and central coasts of California. The projects could provide enough energy to supply power to 1.6 million homes, according to a White House fact sheet.

Monahan said the CEC is “super excited” about the energy generating potential from offshore wind projects. As investments in renewable energy sources continue to increase, she said it will also be “critically important” to invest in storage for that energy so that Californians can have access to it at all times of day.

“That is a big focus of ours as a state: supporting the storage technologies that we will need in addition to the generation technologies, like offshore wind,” Monahan told Newsweek.

As renewable energy sources alleviate some of the pressure on California’s power grid, an increasing number of electric vehicles on the road will add pressure back on.

Offshore wind project

The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea is photographed on November 19, 2020 in Wallasey, England. President Joe Biden announced in May his administration will move forward with plans for offshore wind projects off the northern and central coasts of California.Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

“Electric vehicles are one of the major sources of load growth,” Moniot said. Even so, he said he is optimistic the state can adapt over the next decade.

“Market disruptions like this are slow—until they’re not,” he said. He referenced changes in cell phone technology between 2002 and 2012 as an example—a comparison he noted is not direct but still illustrates how drastically markets can change in a decade.

As that evolution occurs, finding a new balance for California’s power grid will be crucial, Moniot said. Many current electric vehicle owners who are used to charging their vehicles overnight may need to shift their charging behaviors to optimize daylight hours, when more energy generated by solar and wind is accessible.

“You want to make sure that you’re balancing the amount of energy that comes onto the grid versus the energy that’s coming off the grid,” Moniot said. “As long as you have educated drivers and customers—which is going to be a hard part—there’s a lot of room for EVs to participate in this balancing act in a favorable manner.”

The ability for drivers to be flexible with when and how they charge their vehicles is another reason Moniot said widespread access to chargers will be crucial.

“If you don’t have a home charger or a workplace charger, then you can’t participate in this flexibility game as much as those who have ubiquitous access to infrastructure,” Moniot said. “Investment in more plugs is almost always a good thing.”

Monahan told Newsweek utility rates will also be key to creating new consumer behaviors.

“Charging behaviors matter when it comes to California grid goals,” she said. “By incentivizing, primarily through rates, charging behaviors that capitalize on when renewable energy is being generated, we basically have a win for the grid, and we have a win for the drivers in terms of reduced rates.”

Electric vehicle charging station

A driver passes an electric vehicle charging station in Los Angeles, California on May 18, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Monahan described utility rates as a “climate strategy” that California can use to incentivize charging behavior that will alleviate anticipated pressure on the state’s power grid.

“California plans on using rates to help drive the charging behaviors that are going to help the state electrify transportation while cutting carbon from the grid and saving ratepayers and drivers money,” she told Newsweek.

Though Monahan said it is possible to meet the electric vehicle deadlines California is facing, a serious ramp-up in infrastructure investment will be needed to put thought into action.

“I worry that we will not have enough infrastructure to be able to do it in the time that we need,” Monahan said. “We really need to no-holds-barred start investing smartly in infrastructure.”

She reiterated the importance of making sure electric vehicle infrastructure is in place for all communities, regardless of home ownership. “It’s a huge opportunity, so let’s not lose that opportunity, lose momentum, because we don’t have enough infrastructure to meet the need.”

Despite her concerns about timing, Monahan said support of the push for electric vehicles so far from both the state government and the Biden administration is a promising sign.

“I feel optimistic,” she said.

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