How California can use electric vehicles to solve its blackouts

How California can use electric vehicles to solve its blackouts

July 2023 was the hottest recorded month in human history, with off-the-chart extremes around the world week after week. The catastrophic wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, is an eerie reminder of the horrific 2018 Camp Fire that wiped out the Butte County town of Paradise, and a tropical storm just flooded Palm Springs.

Once unheard of, more of these climate extremes can be expected in the future, and they’re already putting enormous strain on California’s century-old electrical grid.

Keeping the electricity on during climate disasters — and the public safety power shutoffs that come with them — is a matter of life and death. Hundreds of thousands of people in California rely on household medical devices like oxygen tanks, infusion pumps, ventilators and dialysis machines. They need the power on no matter what’s happening outside their windows.

But the dirty and expensive gas power plants California relies on when the electrical grid is stressed aren’t up to the task. Not only is the production of fossil gas releasing methane, a potent climate pollutant, but recent analysis shows these plants are underperforming and must be supplemented with even dirtier diesel backup generators.

Luckily, there’s a cleaner, safer and more affordable electricity solution already available.

California generates an enormous amount of clean energy from wind and solar, with more projects coming online every day. But state officials expect we’ll need more battery storage for moments when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining before we can shut down these polluting and unreliable gas plants.

Electric cars, trucks and buses can help. They are California’s greatest untapped asset for ensuring reliable electricity.

Current technology allows an electric vehicle battery to power a home for up to three days as long as it is capable of bidirectional charging. That’s what makes it possible to charge a vehicle’s battery and send its energy back to homes, businesses and the grid. Bidirectional charging is already available on some of the most popular EVs on the market, like the Ford F-150, and some of the most affordable, like the Nissan Leaf.

With millions of Californians poised to make the switch to EVs, now is the time to make sure as many of them as possible can help keep the lights on. That’s why nearly 200 organizations, led by the Climate Center, Nuvve and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are urging the California Legislature to pass Oakland state Sen. Nancy Skinner’s bill, SB233. This legislation will require most new electric vehicles sold in California to be bidirectional by 2035, laying the foundation for EVs to power homes and businesses, lower our energy bills, clean the air and make the electricity grid more reliable.

Making EVs bidirectional transforms them from a problem into a solution for California’s stressed electrical grid, and the potential is huge.

California is already home to more than 1.5 million EVs, which could provide about 15 gigawatts of power back to the grid when needed. That’s six times the maximum power of California’s largest power plant at Diablo Canyon. And state officials expect we’ll have 8 million EVs on the road by 2030. Just a fraction of those EVs backing up our homes and providing energy back to the grid would be a game-changer. Even better, EVs are “batteries on wheels” that can be moved where they’re needed most during heat waves, fires and associated power shutoffs, like backing up hospitals, schools, fire stations and community cooling centers.

In some California communities, this is already happening.

During a record-setting, 10-day heat wave in September, most EV owners were asked to unplug to reduce demand. Instead, the Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego County plugged its bidirectional electric school buses in, using their batteries to stabilize the grid. Those buses provided 650-kilowatt-hours of electricity back to the grid in response to “flex alerts” issued by local authorities, enough to power 277 homes. SB233 would enable all future California electric school buses to have this capability.

Furthermore, having more bidirectional EVs on the road benefits all of us, not just EV owners.

According to the California Energy Commission, the state’s working-class communities of color are the most exposed to toxic air pollution from gas power plants. The state’s largest gas plants — the Alamitos Energy Center in Long Beach and the Ormond Beach Generating Station in Oxnard (Ventura County) — are both located in communities designated as “disadvantaged” under state law. 

With millions of EV batteries storing abundant clean energy during the day and sending that power back to the grid during peak hours, we can finally say goodbye to gas plants and the thousands of noisy, dirty diesel generators that have been purchased in recent years. 

What’s more, making EVs bidirectional typically costs only a few hundred dollars per vehicle and gives owners a chance to save on their electricity bills, so it won’t put electric cars out of reach for middle-income and low-income families.

Timothy Lipman is co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley and a research affiliate with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He has been conducting research on electric vehicles, including vehicle-grid integration, for over 25 years.

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