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What San Jose and Oakland's Abandonment of Natural Gas Means for the Grid

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It’s now illegal in San Jose and Oakland to outfit new homes and buildings with natural gas. That’s right, the Silicon Valley is opting out of America’s favorite energy source. Granted, Northern California is a bastion for progressive policy, but this latest development is a sign of what’s to come. Electrification in the 2020’s is inevitable and, most likely, we’ll need to change the grid to accommodate a considerable jump in demand. 

I expect the news out of San Jose and Oakland to set off a domino effect. Take same-sex marriages (or civil unions, more precisely), for example: Vermont became the first state to legalize gay civil unions in 2000. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and New Hampshire followed suit in the following years. Like marriage equality was in the 2000’s, the divorce from fossil fuel is a pillar of progressivism today. This move in California will put pressure on legislators in blue America to do the same. Who knows how long Oklahoma will hold out, but big Democratic urban metro areas are all we need to see our nation’s energy portfolio and electricity consumption change dramatically. 

As buildings and homes electrify, operators will face a number of challenges. As it stands now, most parts of our grid are designed to handle peak demand in the summer. This is because most people cool their homes with electric air-conditioning systems and heat their homes in the winter with gas powered furnaces. But as those gas powered furnaces get switched out for electric, or even partially electric, heat pumps, we’ll see winter loads climb. A transition to electric vehicles, even if it’s just  5-10 percent market share, will raise demand year round. 

Luckily, some of the new electric devices, like heat pumps and EVs, may be able to feed back into the grid. Efforts to morph electric cars into the grid are already underway.  A couple weeks ago, Australian energy companies AGL and ARENA announced a three-year electric vehicle trial in Queensland and Victoria. Here’s how the $8 million plan was described in the Sydney Morning Herald: 

“The batteries in electric vehicles can be hooked up to the grid through charging points. With smart technology, their stored power can be tapped to smooth peaks and troughs in electricity supply across the day and night.”

More generally, however, the grid will have to become much smarter and flexible. Policy reforms will be needed to allow for grid interactive buildings and load shifting and shedding. 

Although I do expect demand to increase, I’d be wary of predictions that assume human behavior will remain the same in the coming decades. It’s possible our tastes and patterns of consumption will change radically. Stephen Baker, the co-author of Hop Skip Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives (Harper Collins, 2019), made this point during an interview last year for EC:

“...people tend to assume that new technologies will simply follow the patterns of the old. For example, today you drive around in a gasoline-powered machine, tomorrow it will be electric, and a decade from now autonomous. But you’ll keep following the same itineraries.

This isn’t this case. In the next stage of networked mobility, transportation should be far more efficient. Most of us have cars that are only in service 5% of the time. The rest of the time they’re parked. The idea for networked (and eventually autonomous) cars is to squeeze much more production out of them, most likely as a shared resource. This could dramatically reduce our consumption of energy. Then again, if transportation is cheap and efficient, we might use it much more capriciously, perhaps sending an autonomous car across town for tacos or croissants.”

I don’t think anyone really knows how the energy markets and our grid will look in 15 years. But what is clear is that big changes are coming, and they’re likely to be exciting.


 

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