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    No, Newsom's push for electric cars isn't the cause of potential blackouts in California


    September 8, 2022 - Dustin Gardiner, San Francisco Chronicle

     

      Sep. 7—California's warnings of potential rolling blackouts in recent days have been like catnip for conservative politicians and pundits who've tried to tie the crisis to Gov. Gavin Newsom's mandate on electric cars.

      "Shocker! Electric Cars Buckling California Electric Grid," declared a headline in the Epoch Times, a far-right website. Larry Elder, the talk radio host who unsuccessfully tried to oust Newsom in last year's recall election, also reveled in the moment, tweeting, "California outlaws gasoline powered vehicles, then announces — in order to avoid brown-outs, that residents should refrain from charging their electric cars."

      Social media platforms and conservative outlets have amplified similar claims over the last week as the state repeatedly issued "flex" warnings urging Californians to conserve energy to prevent outages during a record-setting heat wave.

      The problem with the notion that electric cars are overtaxing the grid: Energy-demand data flatly debunks the claim.

      Charging for electric cars only accounts for about 0.4% of the overall energy load during peak hours on a typical summer day, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when the grid is most at risk, according to a consumer data forecast from the California Energy Commission.

      Newsom highlighted that data Wednesday as he punched back at Fox News and other outlets fanning the misconception. "This idea that moving toward ZEVs is to blame for the grid strain is moronic," spokesperson Erin Mellon told The Chronicle. Newsom also said that pundits echoing such claims are "not interested in facts."

      Energy experts said the logical pitfalls for conservative critics attempting to draw a direct line from the state's clean car regulations to its current power shortages are numerous. But two clear points stand out:

      California's regulation to ban the sale of most new gas-powered cars, approved last month, doesn't take full effect until 2035 (and even then, up to 20% of new vehicles could be plug-in hybrids that include gas tanks as well as batteries). In other words, the state has 13 years to gradually prepare for the transition.

      — Most electric-car drivers already don't charge during peak demand hours because it's more expensive to do so. The vast majority of EVs, including Teslas and Chevy Bolts, come equipped with a feature to let drivers schedule their charge for off-peak hours. PG&E and other utilities across the state also offer rate incentives for drivers to charge late at night, when demand is lower because people are asleep.

      Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, said critics of California's electric-car policies seem to have little understanding of when electric cars are typically charged.

      "Anybody who has a Tesla will tell you they don't charge their Tesla during the day. You only charge when it's cheap," said Wara, who drives a Model 3. "People who say otherwise just don't understand electric vehicles."

      Data from the Energy Commission supports that point: Demand for electric-vehicle charging is greatest at 12 a.m., when EVs account for about 2.3% of the state's power load.

      Wara said the notion that electric vehicles are straining the grid is also "absurd because there aren't enough of them." Electric vehicles comprise about 2% of the vehicles on California roads today, or about 534,000 of the 36.2 million registered vehicles in the state.

      That share is rapidly increasing, however. More than 15% of new cars sold so far this year were fully electric models, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. That's up from fewer than 6% of vehicles two years ago.

      While the data is clear that electric cars are not driving the state's electrical grid to the brink of failure, what seems to have given Newsom's conservative critics a window largely seems to be timing.

      On Aug. 25, state air quality regulators approved a regulation to formalize Newsom's policy to ban the sale of most new gas-powered by 2035. Five days later, the state began warning utility customers that a heat wave would require them to conserve to prevent outages.

      "The top three conservation actions are to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, avoid using large appliances and charging electric vehicles, and turn off unnecessary lights," the California Independent System Operator warned in an Aug. 30 bulletin.

      The operator, which runs the transmission system that powers the vast majority of the state, has not repeated the reference to charging electric vehicles in its most recent bulletins.

      State Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County who is running a long-shot campaign against Newsom this year, has been among the most vocal critics of his electric-car agenda. Dahle said he fears the risk of outages could only get worse.

      "Can you imagine what it would be like if 50% of the cars were electric right now?" Dahle said Tuesday night, as the state was on the brink of ordering rolling blackouts. "They set goals without any plan of how to achieve those goals."

      California's main electrical grid successfully staved off mandated blackouts through a combination of residents reducing electricity use and importing power Tuesday evening, when strain on the grid peaked between 6 and 7 p.m. Residents were warned of the need to conserve again Wednesday.

      Other Republican skeptics have taken a more conspiratorial tone in their criticism of Newsom and electric cars.

      Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson dedicated a nearly 17-minute segment to California's policy and strained power grid. He called electric cars "a new way to overburden California's already collapsing energy grid" and suggested a more sinister plot is behind the state's policy.

      "The instinct behind all of this is totalitarian, which is to say, total control over you," Carlson said.

      Newsom's spokesperson, Mellon, said critics are overlooking the outsize role extreme weather, fueled by climate change, has played in the strain on California's energy grid. She said the state will double down on its policies to reduce planet-warming emissions, including by phasing out gas cars, the single largest source of carbon emissions.

      "The only way out of this is to end our dependence on oil, and bolster our grid with more clean, reliable energy," she said in an email.

      Of course, the state's 2035 goal to end the sale of most gas-guzzling cars will increase demand on the power grid. But even if California adds millions more electric cars, the Energy Commission projects only about 4% of the state's load demand during peak hours will come from vehicle-charging in 2030.

      Newsom's administration plans to triple the state's electrical grid capacity by 2035, when the mandate takes full effect, which will require the state to add about 6 gigawatts of new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, and storage facilities.

      Over the next three years, California utilities already plan to add 8 gigawatts in renewable and storage capacity. A gigawatt is roughly enough electricity to supply 750,000 homes.

      California already often generates an abundance of electricity from solar panels during sunny daytime hours. But it wastes a large portion of that energy because there's nowhere to store it, so the state must rely on electricity imported from other states and gas-fired plants when the sun goes down and demand soars.

      Siva Gunda, vice chair of the Energy Commission, said that while the state is beginning a difficult transition, the speed with which it's deploying energy storage systems is unprecedented. Today, the state has about 4,316 megawatts in battery storage, up from just 250 megawatts in 2019. A megawatt is roughly enough electricity to supply 750 homes.

      "This is something we firmly believe in California is doable, and we will do it," he said. "Because there is change, there will always be caution and fear."

      Newsom and state legislators have poured money, largely from California's budget surplus, into programs to develop new sources of clean energy. This year's budget includes $8 billion for such efforts, including projects to build more renewable sources — such as offshore wind farms — make buildings more energy-efficient, and develop long-duration storage systems.

      Beyond generating more electricity, state officials say new automated technology that can cycle appliances off to avoid energy during periods of peak demand will be crucial.

      Another key could be the batteries inside electric cars themselves. Several new models of vehicles are designed with vehicle-grid integration that could allow the electricity stored in the battery to help power homes and businesses during shortages.

      Marc Monbouquette, a regulatory affairs manager at Enel North America, a company that develops renewable power plants and vehicle-charging stations, said critics suggesting EVs will cripple California's grid "are missing the point that, by and large, EVs are a flexible resource."

      "The state is putting these pieces into play," he said. "It's now a question of technological maturity."

      Chronicle staff writer Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.

      Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dustin.gardiner@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dustingardiner

      ___

      (c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle

      Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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