Will Electric Cars Swamp the California Grid?

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leaf-aloneTuesday night I attended an energy geek fest, and was shocked. The email had made the event sound like a snoozer: PG&E representatives discuss their views on electric cars.

But sparks started flying right away, as two Tesla engineers tore into the utility folks for being slow to provision new charging stations, but mostly just cause they seemed to want to tear into them.

The big aha for me was realizing the PG&E folks truly believe that plug-in cars could be the biggest wave to hit the grid since air conditioners and refrigerators. And that the energy grid today might be like the phone system circa 1993 at the dawn of the Internet: it doesn’t know whats about to hit it.

There are 22 Million cars in California right now, including maybe 20,000 plug-in ones. But plug-in adoption is tracking way ahead of hybrid adoption ten years ago, and the PGE folks expect to see a million plug-ins in California say by 2020, or sooner.

No problem if they all plug in to home chargers at night – PG&E has base load nuclear power they can’t shut off at night, so that energy is otherwise wasted.

The issue is if people insist on driving to work and then recharging before heading home, or at the market, or wherever during the day.

Problem number one is the extra load from that on the system if the daytime charging is not paired with solar (unlikely).

Problem number two is that to put a lot of chargers in one parking lot, for example – especially high capacity DC chargers – sucks a lot of juice, and PG&E might have to upgrade the local transformers, which can cost millions of dollars. Since PG&E is prohibited from setting up charging stations themselves (electric utility regulation is mind-boggling), that means it will be slow going until third parties find locations where there’s already fast PG&E pipes nearby.

PG&E seems to want the whole plug-in thing to happen, supposedly because of their environmental mission (cynical view… society will be more dependent on them, they’ll be more important and can pay themselves more!) They just don’t want to get caught flat-footed by it.

Pure electric cars (Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S) aren’t the issue… it’s still early adopter days, and to most normal Californians, they’re more likely to buy a horse. It’s the plug-in cars that are coming on strong, with their have-your-sustainable-cake-and-a-gas-engine-backup-too pitch. Ford, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Chevy – almost every major car brand is coming out with multiple plug-in options in the next year or two.

Why not tank up with electrons at the equivalent of $1/gallon in the car you were going to buy anyway? And with the backup gas engine, you don’t have to worry about running out of electrons after 80 miles (e.g. in the Leaf) and getting stranded. Although weirdly the PG&E folks reported that “range anxiety” affects even Chevy Volt owners… they worry about running out of electrons and having to use their gas backup!

My major take away from this geek fest – it’s gonna be messy as more of these cars hit the road. No one’s in charge, so to speak. PG&E, the government, retailers, employers, car makers, early adopters… everyone’s acting independently and not necessarily even rationally (what do you expect when lots of people are still letting you charge for free)?

I do hope electric cars take the grid by storm just like air conditioning did. If only to make all those car repair places who swindled me on oil leaks all my life go out of business!

Dave Margulius is CEO of Quizlet, and lives in San Francisco, CA. You can follow him on Twitter, or reach him via LinkedIn or as dmargulius on that Google mail service.

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