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Will California's Grid Withstand Electric Vehicles?

Todd Carney's picture
Writer Freelance

Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He writes on many different aspects of energy, in particular how it...

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  • Sep 21, 2022
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As America moves past a tough winter for grids, many experts are evaluating what they can do over the next year to prevent the same kind of problems next summer. This summer also saw an increase in the use of electric cars due to high gas prices. Towards the end of summer when California’s recommended people hold off charging their cars at certain hours, many skeptics of electric vehicles jumped on it as proof that electric vehicles are not the answer to America’s energy woes. This has spurred debate over whether electric vehicles are beneficial to the grid or a hindrance. Recently many people have come to defense of electric vehicles.

A local news outlet in California recently asked whether California’s grid can handle more electric vehicles. California accounts for about half of the electric vehicle sales throughout the country. This will only increase as California is phasing in a ban on electric vehicles. Advocates of the ban are optimistic that the grid can handle more electric vehicles because the ban is gradual (over 10 years). So during this time, California’s grid can readjust for increased demand and increase the use of alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind.

These advocates have pointed out that electric vehicles can even store energy and then send the excess energy back to the grid in times when the grid is running low. Some have cautioned that the technological capability to do this would be too costly. Additionally, these advocates have discussed city buses doing this, but it is hard to imagine personal vehicles doing this, which could prove more costly.

The tech publication, Wired, has weighed in. Their piece argued that electric vehicles will save California’s grid. Wired also leaned into the idea of electric vehicles providing more energy to the grid. To answer the skepticism on personal vehicles providing energy like city buses, personal vehicles could send energy to homes. This could prove particularly beneficial in power outages, regardless of whether a heat wave or a storm caused the power outage. The article also expressed hope that electric vehicles owners could collaborate and all simultaneously plug into the grid.

The author also discussed how different governments are testing out the technology to see the capacity of electric vehicles to return energy to the grid. Despite the problems mentioned above, advocates are optimistic that in the next 10 years this technology could become fully functional and efficient. After that, advocates say there would need to be technology that helps standardize energy return practices. 

This all sounds promising, but it does involve a lot of steps and theoreticals. If it can all work out, then the grid’s fortunes will improve. But if anything is off then all of these predictions could go out the window. The self-selection process seems doubtful as well. In a large state like California, it is hard to get everyone to agree on anything. It would be interesting to see what percent of California would need to participate.

The Scientific American endorsed a similar sentiment but backed it up with more concrete statistics. They specifically gamed out how many more electric vehicles that they would see by 2030 and beyond. They also looked into how much money different government agencies are investing in these initiatives. Like Wired, this article counted on participation from the general populace. It spoke of more ways to leverage technology to encourage Californians to participate in load management and initiatives that would give Californians more active control of how they could participate.

The evidence that the Scientific American brings, makes the ideas put forth by the publications above more believable. Of course the issue again is some of their forecasts are a few years off. But that is going to be an issue with anything planned over a decade, so that is not an indictment of their ideas, it is just a potential limitation.

The ideas pushed by these pieces create a lot of hope about how America can get the benefits of electric vehicles without any detriments. If California can make this work, then that will be a boon for the rest of the country, and frankly, the world. Everyone’s eyes will continue to stay on California.

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