California’s fight against global warming is on a collision course with its rickety grid. The state aims to end net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, forcing many things that burn fossil fuels — particularly vehicles, factories and buildings — to switch to electricity. And yet California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, struggles to keep the lights on during its increasingly severe heat waves.

The state legislature recently voted to keep California’s last nuclear plant open past its planned 2025 retirement after projections showed years of tight power supplies to come. But even with the plant running, power demand will stretch the limits of supply — and that’s before millions of electric vehicles plug into the grid.

California wants most new cars to run on electricity by 2035 and may require new houses to contain all-electric appliances, perhaps as soon as 2026. EVs accounted for 15% of new car sales in the state this year, though only 800,000 of the 30 million vehicles on the state’s roads are EVs (plus about 400,000 plug-in hybrids).

“The state’s ambitions are way ahead of reality,” said Gary Ackerman, founder of the Western Power Trading Forum, a coalition of more than 100 companies advocating for competition in Western electricity markets. “You can glorify a zero-carbon world, but the reality is going to be much different and the timeline is going much slower.”

Conservative commentators have pointed with glee to California’s brushes with blackouts this week — the state on Friday canceled an emergency without having to resort to outages — coming so soon after finalizing rules for phasing out sales of new, gas-burning cars. But beneath the snark lies a real issue: California’s climate policies will increase electricity demand. They will require a grid that carries far more power than it does today, perhaps 80% more by 2045, according to a recent estimate from the California Air Resources Board.

New solar and wind farms plus large-scale batteries are being plugged into the grid as fast as supply chains will allow, with renewables last year supplying a third of California’s electricity. Modeling from the Energy Innovation Policy & Technology research company shows electricity demand could grow 18% from 2020 levels by 2030, as vehicles and buildings start to electrify.

Keeping up with that growth is quite doable, said Michael O’Boyle, the company's director of electricity policy. “We can maintain reliability and start to wind down the gas fleet, but we really need to maintain focus on execution and building out a diverse clean-energy portfolio,” he said. That includes the California Energy Commission’s new target of installing 2 gigawatts to 5 gigawatts of offshore wind turbines by 2030, a technology not yet deployed on the West Coast. 

As for those electric cars, they could become a powerful tool for stabilizing the grid, rather than crushing it. Their batteries could supply power back to the grid in times of need, then recharge later, when electricity supplies rise.

“They’re giant batteries,” said Leah Stokes, a longtime climate advocate and a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It makes the grid more resilient, not less.”

The state and its electric utilities just need to ensure that drivers know not to recharge when they first get home in the evening — the same time they typically crank up their air conditioners and turn on the lights.

The drive to electrify everything still carries risks. While EV charging can be shifted to the middle of the night, much of the electricity needed for air conditioning or heating can’t. Californians will still need to use those systems at the same time, and they’ll need them more in an era of extreme temperatures, said Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley. He serves on the board of governors of the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state’s grid. Climate models suggest the state may receive less rainfall in the future, even after the current drought ends. That means hydropower dams, once a major source of clean energy for California, won’t generate much power. 

Meanwhile, California’s growing dependence on solar power is leaving it vulnerable on hot evenings after the sun sets. The state has turned to large-scale batteries to cover the gap, with enough of them installed in recent years to supply 3.3 gigawatts of electricity. But they typically discharge for just four hours at a time, not enough to replace the gas-burning plants that currently keep the lights on at night. Longer-term energy storage is needed, but the only kind widely used in the state is pumped-hydro storage, which requires building pairs of reservoirs at different elevations in hilly or mountainous terrain.

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program says the transition to a more electrified future can work so long as the state accelerates deployment.

“We’re changing all of the parts of the airplane while it’s in midair. That airplane has to not crash,” he said.


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