Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth. One influencer each week is also invited to write a column that takes a closer look at the issue.
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Good bye dirty air. Goodbye $100 gas station visits. Goodbye international oil cartel. As we move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, we not only move away from pollution, we move toward homegrown resources like sunshine and wind.
But while transitioning to electric cars is critical for California’s transportation, energy and environmental future, it won’t be without speed bumps. Today’s electric grid, with its heavy reliance on large power plants located hundreds of miles from where electricity is consumed, can’t handle all those electric cars yet. To charge those cars, we would need to build more power plants, as well as more and bigger transmission lines, distribution lines and substations. The whole grid would have to be supersized.
Consider this: An electric car increases average household electricity consumption by 70 percent. If every driveway had an electric car, your neighborhood would need a lot more electricity which, in turn, would strain the grid. And DC super chargers down at the grocery store create another problem: sudden surges in demand.
The grid just wasn’t built for this. Like transporting more water requires a bigger pipe, transporting more electrons requires thicker wires. Transformers and substations that convert electricity from distant power plants to what can be used inside your home would also need to be upsized to accommodate increased flows. All those upgrades are expensive and would push up electric bills for everybody.
Today, we face a transformational question. Do we supersize the grid to deliver enough electricity from faraway sources to charge all those electric cars, or do we tap into the sunshine that falls on our roofs and charge our cars locally to avoid expensive grid upgrades?
In 2018, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), a state-run nonprofit that approves work on the long-distance transmission grid, saved ratepayers $2.6 billion by canceling 18 grid upgrade projects. Why? Because of increases in rooftop solar and energy efficiency. It works, if we let it.
Let’s go back to that neighborhood with electric cars in every driveway. Imagine now that there are solar panels on every roof and batteries in every garage. Instead of your utility supersizing the grid to accommodate that 70 percent increase in demand, they instead incentivize those solar panels and batteries and enabled those homes to share electrons amongst themselves, generating and using the power locally.
But here’s the rub. For the utilities, supersizing the grid is a money-maker. They turn a profit on every upgrade they make, not every electron they sell. Fewer upgrades mean less profit. Consumers pay for the electrons to charge our cars and we pay for the grid upgrades to deliver those electrons from distant power plants. Rooftop solar is in our best interest twice over, both because we generate our own power and we avoid expensive grid upgrades.
Now, to be fair, we’ll never completely do away with centralized power to help meet growing energy needs. To electrify our cars, we need all clean energy solutions on the table, including large wind and solar farms. But for the sake of minimizing costs, building a safer and more reliable grid and deploying timely climate change solutions, we need to get serious about localizing energy.
Getting serious means encouraging distributed generation like solar and storage via incentives and reducing red tape. And, it means blocking efforts to penalize these systems.
This past spring, SMUD proposed taxing rooftop solar to make up for lost sales. The Merced Irrigation District recently adopted a similar solar tax. These sorts of discriminatory fees push in the wrong direction and need to be stopped. A bill that would do that, Senate Bill 288, was blocked by utilities just last month. The legislature should revive it. With the push toward electric cars, the urgency has never been greater.
Electric cars in every driveway is our future. Let’s be smart about how we power those cars. Let’s take steps today to protect who can and should own the energy that will drive us forward tomorrow.