How Electric Cars Can Keep California Electric Without More Natural Gas

Faced with another dry summer of wildfires and power outages, California leaders worked on a plan to keep the lights on.

After approving a state budget that allocated billions of taxpayer dollars to fossil fuel power plants, Governor Newsom has just called for an abrupt change in strategy. In a letter to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) — the agency leading the state’s climate plan — the governor asked state regulators to avoid building on new gasworks and finding cleaner ways to meet growing electricity demand.

It’s good news. Burning more gas when the electricity supply shrinks will only create more deadly climate and air pollution. Instead, the governor should focus on unleashing the full potential of California’s million solar rooftops and million electric vehicles to keep the lights on.

When we are not driving them, electric cars, trucks and buses can act as “batteries on wheels”. Emerging vehicle-grid integration technologies can be used to power homes and businesses using electric vehicle batteries when the grid fails. These mobile power sources can also be moved to where they are needed most during power outages, such as medical centers, fire stations, and grocery stores.

California’s private electric vehicle fleet already has a combined capacity greater than the potential five-gigawatt shortfall that has state officials scratching their heads. And that fleet and its battery capacity are growing rapidly.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, the state is expected to be home to 5 million electric vehicles by 2030. So far in 2022 alone, 16% of all vehicles sold in California have been electric. The technology is there for these vehicles to become key assets in preventing power outages, but the policies are not yet.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Tesla just announced a program to use Tesla Powerwall batteries for backup power when intense heat increases demand on the grid this summer – a concept known as the Powerhouse Virtual. Participating battery owners will be paid to export electricity to the grid when energy supplies are limited during summer afternoons and evenings.

This idea need not be limited to PG&E customers who own a Powerwall. Any owner of one of California’s millions (and counting) of electric vehicles should be able to export electricity to the grid – and be rewarded for it – when demand is high.

With the right policies in place, this kind of clean, distributed, and resilient energy system is within reach. But despite significant investments in the transition to climate-friendly transport, policymakers have yet to seize the opportunity to boost grid reliability using electric vehicles.

The state budget includes $10 billion for zero-emission vehicles, which could be used to improve the resilience of California’s electric system without increasing reliance on fossil fuels. For example, electric school buses that charge during the day — and barely run during the summer — could be deployed as a battery-powered fleet on wheels in communities across California.

California public agencies own hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles. These agencies should plan not only to continue to electrify their fleets, but also to use the battery storage available in these vehicles to avoid power outages in times of crisis.

The state cannot achieve Governor Newsom’s proposed transition away from natural gas on its own. Local government energy planning will also be key to maximizing the potential of California’s existing and future solar rooftops and electric vehicles. A bill passing through the legislature, the Community Energy Resilience Act (SB 833, Dodd), would help make this possible by providing funding and technical assistance to communities looking to build cleaner, more resilient energy systems. More local energy planning would also help reduce demand on the grid, to the benefit of all.

Heads of state must also prioritize clean, distributed energy in underserved communities hardest hit by power outages and air pollution. These are the same communities where power plants and fossil fuel generators are often located, although they are only used to keep electricity flowing to wealthier communities during peak summer months. .

Without investment in clean, distributed, resilient energy, California’s fossil fuel problem will worsen. Not only does CARB need to find a way around polluting gas-fired power plants, but purchases of toxic diesel generators have skyrocketed as home and business owners grapple with frequent power outages. Over the past three years, diesel generator purchases have jumped 34% in the Bay Area alone.

Allowing this reliance on gasoline and diesel to continue – and even investing our taxes in it – would be a huge climate and public health failure. Governor Newsom knows this and he is rightly taking action to stop California from putting fossil fuels on life support. Now is the time for the governor, legislators and agencies like CARB to start building a network for the future.

With one million solar rooftops and one million electric vehicles to begin with, California has a huge opportunity to show what a 21st century clean electricity system could look like. Fossil fuels are our past. Clean, affordable, reliable, fair and secure energy is our future.

Ellie Cohen is CEO of The Climate Center, a climate and energy policy nonprofit working to rapidly reduce large-scale climate pollution, starting in California.

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