How electric cars can keep California’s power on without more natural gas

Confronted with another bone-dry summer of wildfires and power shutoffs, California’s leaders have been working on a plan to keep the lights on.

After approving a state budget that allocated billions of taxpayer dollars to fossil fuel power plants, Gov. Newsom 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 instructed state regulators to avoid relying on new gas plants and find cleaner ways to meet growing electricity demand.

This is welcome news. Burning more gas when electricity supplies get tight will only create more deadly climate and air pollution. Instead, the governor should focus on unlocking the full potential of California’s one million solar roofs and one million electric vehicles to keep the lights on.

When we’re 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 by using the batteries in electric vehicles when the grid goes down. These mobile energy sources can also be moved where they’re needed most during power outages, like backing up medical centers, fire stations and food stores.

California’s privately owned electric vehicle already has a combined capacity larger than the potential five-gigawatt shortfall that has state officials scratching their heads. And that fleet and its battery capacity is 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 emergency power when intense heat drives up demand on the grid this summer — a concept known as a virtual power plant. Participating battery owners will be paid for exporting power to the grid when energy supplies are limited during summer afternoons and evenings.

This idea doesn’t need to be limited to PG&E customers who happen to own a Powerwall. Any owner of one of California’s million (and counting) electric vehicles should be able to export power 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 our reach. But despite investing heavily in the transition to climate-friendly transportation, state policymakers have not yet taken the advantage of the opportunity to strengthen the reliability of the grid using electric vehicles.

The state’s budget includes $10 billion for zero-emission vehicles, which could be used to enhance the resilience of California’s electricity system without furthering reliance on fossil fuels. For example, electric school buses that charge during the day — and hardly operate at all during the summer — could be as a fleet of batteries on wheels in communities across California.

California’s public agencies own hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles. These agencies should be planning to not only continue electrifying their fleets, but also to use the battery storage available in these vehicles to prevent power outages in times of crisis.

The state can’t achieve Gov. Newsom’s proposed transition away from natural gas on its own. Local government energy planning will also be key in maximizing the potential of California’s existing and future solar roofs and electric vehicles. A bill moving 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 to reduce demand on the grid, benefiting everyone.

State leaders must also prioritize clean, distributed energy in underserved communities hit hardest by power issues and air pollution. These are the same communities where fossil-fueled power plants and generators are often located, even if they’re only used to keep power flowing to wealthier communities during peak summer months.

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

Allowing this reliance on gas and diesel to continue — and even investing our tax dollars in it — would be a massive climate and public health failure. Gov. Newsom knows this, and he’s rightly taking action to prevent California from putting fossil fuels on life support. Now it’s time for the governor, legislators and agencies like CARB to begin building a grid for the future.

With one million solar roofs and one million electric vehicles to start with, California has a huge opportunity to show what a clean, 21st-century power system could look like. Fossil fuels are our past. Clean, affordable, reliable, equitable and safe energy is our future.

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

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