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EVs to the rescue: Lessons from a California blackout

“Electric cars are part of the solution, not the problem.”

When the lights went out in California last week, one resident used the power stored in his electric vehicle (EV) to keep his oxygen machine up and running. Reports of similar incidents around the state called attention to a vision of the future where people use their electric cars and trucks to power homes and businesses. 

“If we cannot get power from the original source, we can use local generation,” said Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle (PH&EV) Research Center at UC Davis. “The electric vehicle is one way to make the grid more reliable.”

Opportunities to wrest energy from EVs will only increase as more electric cars and trucks come online. And as electricity stored in the vehicle batteries is fed back into the grid, EVs “could really be used as one of the main sources of power,” Tal said.  

Power out or power up

About 700,000 customers lost power during last week’s intentional rolling outages, set in motion by PG&E as a way to prevent wildfires. Among those impacted were EV owners, many of whom rely on electricity from the grid to keep their cars running.  

Ahead of the outages Tesla, GM and other electric vehicle manufacturers warned customers to charge up. During the blackout Tesla’s Elon Musk went on Twitter assuring customers he was trying to swap in the company’s battery Powerpacks and solar power for its regional Supercharger stations as fast as possible.

The spectacle of EV owners scrambling raises several questions about electric vehicles and the grid. California is an epicenter for Tesla and EV ownership, and all those cars plugging in at the same time need a lot of power. Ensuring those vehicles don’t become a drain on the electricity supply is a critical issue, and will become even more so as the state tightens zero emission vehicle mandates for cars and trucks.

But if there is a lesson to be learned from the recent blackouts, several energy experts told FreightWaves, it’s that EVs can achieve what many in the industry have claimed for years: shore up the grid when it goes down or requires rebalancing.

The blackout survival kit

When you charge your EV, the battery acts as an energy storage device, ready to unleash electricity as you drive down the road.  But the energy can also be redirected to other uses, say, to power your refrigerator when the electricity is shut off during a rolling blackout mandated by your local utility. And with outages expected to be a bigger part of California’s future, that EV in your garage may become an essential tool in your blackout survival kit.

“Thirty years from now, when we have 20 million EVs on the road, they definitely would be a great solution,” said Nicholas Abi-Samra, the president of Electric Power & Energy Consulting (EPEC) and an adjunct professor at UC San Diego. But even now, with about 1.5 million EVs in the U.S, their collective power is sufficient for residents or communities “to retain some level of minimum services,” he said.

“We can achieve some continuity, resiliency.”  

Compounding the benefits

The outlook brightens further when you add renewable energy to the mix. About 40% of Californians who own EVs also have rooftop solar systems installed. Even if the grid shuts down, they can charge their cars when the sun is shining, and store the power in their batteries for later use.  

“They can literally isolate themselves or island themselves from the grid,” Abi-Samra said. His Tesla-owning neighbor, he noted, could likely power “a big part of his home” with his car.

That grid-freeing logic drives the installation of solar-powered EV charging stations for passenger vehicles and commercial fleets. During the blackouts, these outposts kept many a passenger vehicle running. Now manufacturers are looking to install solar-powered mega-chargers that could juice up big rig batteries, bolstering existing solar-generated freight facilities and complementing purchases of electric semi-trucks.

Just last week, PepsiCo announced a plan to turn the Frito-Lay facility in Modesto, one of Frito-Lay’s largest in the U.S., into a sustainability showcase featuring zero/near zero-emission vehicles, more solar panels and storage and on-site charging stations. 

Canadian grocery chain Loblaw Companies Ltd. said it will likely use solar power to power charging stations for the 25 Semis that it has ordered from Tesla, Reuters reported. 

Shoring up the energy supply

Using energy stored in batteries to directly charge homes and businesses isn’t the most efficient way to wring solar-powered electricity from electric vehicles, Tal said.

“The best way to get power from solar panels is to push it into the grid and back into the cars,” said Tal. “If we have this in big numbers, it will  move the grid into much more resilience.”

Solar powered or not, some of the greatest efficiencies come from EV owners feeding electricity back into the grid, with rebates available for customers who take the load off utilities during times of peak demand. These types of vehicle-to-grid demonstration projects are increasingly common, if far from being fully realized.

End game

The PG&E blackouts can be blamed on many factors, mostly the failure to invest over the last few decades in new infrastructure. And for many industry observers, the outages set off warning signals regarding the state’s ambitious efforts to increase the number of EVs on the road.

PG&E can barely function now, much less, “when putting half of commercial vehicles on the grid,” said Steve Tam, vice president of  ACT Research. Tam was referring to the state’s Advanced Clean Truck rule, a proposed measure that would require manufacturers to ramp up sales of zero emission vehicles.  

Tal agrees the grid is under stress. The bottom line is electric cars require power to operate, he said.

“In developing countries that don’t have a reliable grid, we are not expecting a rapid uptake of electric cars. I hope California is not part of developing countries and will fix this problem.”

Nevertheless, he emphasized, “Electric cars are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected].