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Is Our Electrified Future Coming Too Fast?

by Ron CoganApril 4, 2024
There’s good reason to question the regulatory tunnel vision at play as we move toward an electrified future. Do we have the means to power it?

California has banned the sale of new gas vehicles in the state by 2035. Eight other states have adopted its far-reaching rule and more are considering it. This is an environmental win but also a huge worry for many who feel their mobility way of life will be increasingly challenged as we head toward an electrified future. They have a right to be concerned.

It’s true that many assumptions are at work today as we head toward a world replete with electric cars, and these should be well considered. Perhaps the most controversial notion is that the nation’s electrical grid will support a massive influx of electric vehicles on our highways. If we accept that calculations supporting this conclusion were accurate at the time they were made, it’s apparent they didn’t take into account the challenges now posed by an increasingly contrary climate.

One example is Electric Vehicles at Scale – Phase 1 Analysis: High EV Adoption Impacts on the Western U.S. Power Grid, the first of a multi-part analysis by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory conducted on behalf of the Department of Energy. This comprehensive and well-documented report analyzed how the many millions of electric cars expected on the road by 2028 would affect the Western grid.

Without diminishing the considerable work and expertise that went into this report, it’s important to note that there’s an important caveat. In its words, the study’s outcomes “are predicated on normal grid conditions, absent of any grid contingencies, such as generator or transmission outages, extreme weather scenarios, extreme high loads, or fire conditions that require deactivation of major transmission lines.”

This is an eye-opening footnote. In recent years, the nation has experienced a greater incidence of extreme weather events like historic heat waves, deep freezes, high winds, hurricanes, and monsoon-like downpours. These have disrupted the electrical grid and caused blackouts in diverse parts of the country. This not only brings the misery of living in the dark without air conditioning, lights, or staying connected, but also an inability to charge an electric vehicle if one happens to be in your garage.

"Don't Charge at Peak Times"

During yet another California heat wave in a recent summer, the state’s Independent System Operator issued 10 straight days of Flex Alerts asking consumers to cut energy use to avoid rolling blackouts. The ask was that thermostats be set higher and that consumers avoid using major appliances, including electric vehicle chargers, during specific times. Consumers rallied to the call and blackouts were averted. But this is not sustainable as an answer to an overloaded grid.

Broken EV chargers that do not bode well for an electrified future.

Overtaxing the grid isn’t exclusively a problem here. Heat waves and a severe drought impacting hydroelectric power affected a million electric vehicles in China, causing public charging stations to go offline. This underscores the challenge, illustrating the fragile balance of power generation and demand, and how unanticipated heat waves, droughts, and wildfires – and of course millions more electric cars – can potentially strain any electrical grid past its breaking point.

California has been successful in increasingly moving toward renewable wind and solar power, but phasing in renewables to displace the need for conventional power generation takes time. In anticipation of projected electricity shortfalls and the potential for blackouts in the years ahead, California extended operation of the state’s last operating nuclear powerplant, Diablo Canyon, which was scheduled to shut down in 2025. The powerplant supplies 9 percent of the state’s electricity and was deemed critical to California’s short-term electrical needs.

An Electrified Future in Flux

Illustration of an electrical grid in our electrified future.

Over three decades ago when attention first turned to electric cars, the need for environmental improvement was real. It is, by all measures, now acute. Will a 2035 ban on gasoline cars in California and other ‘green’ states come to pass as planned, and will we be able to charge the millions of electric vehicles this will bring? A great many people hope so. But along the way, history shows us we need to be prepared with realistic options and contingency plans…just in case.

Green Car Journal editor Ron Cogan has focused on the intersection of automobiles, energy, and the environment for 35 years. He is an acknowledged electric vehicle expert and spent a year of daily travels behind the wheel of GM’s groundbreaking EV1 electric car.