California’s EV Growth Benefits Outweigh Energy System Costs, Report Says

(Photo: Facebook’s EV charging stations in Menlo Park, California. Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius, Flickr Creative Commons)

As California readies for rapid electric vehicle growth, the state’s energy system will require upgrades, but the costs are likely to be low compared to the benefits, according to a new report from Next 10. The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank takes a close look at how the state’s grid might be challenged or helped by the rise of electric vehicles.

Called “Electric Vehicles and the California Grid,” the report was written by Anand R. Gopal and Julia Szinai of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Their brief investigates trends in the electrification of the transportation sector, mobility, and charging infrastructure to help identify which strategies can optimize grid performance.

“Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of California, as in many other major economies throughout the world,” they wrote. The transportation sector needs to deliver significant GHG emissions cuts in order to help achieve California’s ambitious climate goals.

California currently has about 369,000 plug-in electric passenger vehicles (PEVs), the authors point out. “In order to reach Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of 5 million PEVs by 2030, sales need to grow significantly,” they wrote. “Also on the horizon: electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and the prospect of private vehicle ownership being lowered by fleets of electric, self-driving PEVs.”

Key takeaways from the report include:

Energy demand is only modestly increasing as PEV sales surge

  • The California Energy Commission forecasts that 3.9 million PEVs would add about 15,500 GWh of charging demand, equivalent to just about 5% of California’s current total annual energy load.
  • A Chevy Bolt driven 50 miles a day uses the same amount of electricity as an air conditioner cooling a three-bedroom home for three hours.

Transportation trends towards automation and increased usage of mobility services like ride-hailing could rapidly expand the share of electric vehicles on the road, further increasing electricity demand.

  • The estimated share of total light-duty vehicle miles traveled from ride-hailing vehicles could double from 10% to 20% between 2018 and 2020, based on projections from ride-hailing companies.
  • If regulators choose to require that these fleets move toward PEVs, this could have significant impacts for infrastructure and charging needs. Only about 1% of total Uber and Lyft trip miles in California are made in electric vehicles as of Q3 2017.

The growth of electric vehicles in California will require upgrades to the energy system, but the costs are likely to be low compared to the benefits.

  • In areas with high concentrations of PEVs, the distribution system is likely to be the first part of the grid to require upgrades and management as a result of PEV growth. At an aggregate distribution system level, an analysis found that annual PEV-related distribution costs through 2030 are estimated at about only one percent of the distribution revenue requirement of California’s three investor-owned utilities and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District combined.
  • If California were to move to smart charging of the 5 million electric vehicles targeted by Governor Brown’s goal, it could help reduce the amount of curtailed renewable energy by 50% in 2025.
  • According to the California Public Utilities Commission, flexible EV charging can generate resource cost savings of $100 million to $200 million per year for the power system compared to unmanaged EV charging.

New management strategies can help optimize potential benefits and minimize potential risks of more PEVs needing more electricity, but are challenging to implement.

  • Managed charging programs such as time-of-use charging, which shifts charging to off-peak hours, could lessen stress on the grid, lower operating costs, and help integrate intermittent renewable energy.
  • Smart charging, which allows active electric vehicle charging to be turned on or off to coincide with times of low wholesale prices or high renewable generation, can curb incremental system operating costs and reduce renewable energy curtailment.
  • These programs require well-designed, behaviorally aware incentives to entice large numbers of PEV owners to participate.
  • Although electric vehicle batteries could provide a source of energy storage to the grid, in practice this would be complex and costly. Stationary battery storage could be used to provide distribution system support, load-shifting, and ancillary services.

The authors note that California’s charging infrastructure is lagging compared to the deployment of PEVs, and compared to the charger density in the rest of the country and globally.

“Part of the reason for lagging charging infrastructure development is that it has thus far been primarily built by private actors, but under current electricity rates and costs, the business model is not financially viable,” they wrote. “Other barriers include cost, competing standards and multiple use cases.”

“Existing utility, government and other private sector investments are underway to boost charging infrastructure,” they continue,” but additional expansion of infrastructure will be necessary.”

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