Sonoma County airport electric-car-rental plan faces power-supply bottleneck
A plan for electric-vehicle fast chargers at an envisioned new car-rental facility at the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport has hit a speed bump: A power provider says it could take several years to provide the large amount of electricity those chargers require.
The facility proposal is being updated for EV rentals to fit with California’s recently accelerated push to electrify transportation to cut emissions.
But a local bottleneck in the electrical grid has the project team exploring ways to lessen the anticipated multi-megawatt power demand from chargers needed to quickly get returned EVs ready for the next renter.
Plans for the consolidated rent-a-car facility have been in motion since late 2019, according to documents presented to the Board of Supervisors early this year. The five rental companies operating at the county-run airport want to increase the number of vehicles available and add joint services such as fueling stations for the fleets, automated car wash and a shop for light maintenance.
But with the state’s plan to phase out sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, the project is being adjusted to include car chargers, Airport Manager Jon Stout told the North Bay Business Journal.
Based on a projection that the roughly 500 vehicles in the airport’s rental companies’ fleets would eventually be all EVs, the ConRAC center would need around 10 direct-current fast chargers and over a dozen level 2 quick chargers, Stout said.
Also called level 3 chargers, DC fast chargers provide 3 to 20 miles of driving range per minute of charge. Level 2 chargers give 12 to 80 miles of juice per charging hour.
The fast chargers are desirable because they allow returned rentals to be put back into the available fleet rapidly, Stout said.
“Customers wouldn’t pick up electric vehicles if there’s no charge,” he said.
But DC chargers demand a lot of power — up to 400 kilowatts each — for those fast battery fill-ups. Based on today’s charger and battery technology, the total power demand estimated for the roughly two dozen planned ConRAC chargers was figured to be 5.3 megawatts, largely because of the fast chargers, Stout said.
That total electricity demand is equivalent to what nearly 5,700 West Coast homes consume hourly on average, according to the Energy Information Administration.
But Stout said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. told the project team that its nearest substation just south of the airport wouldn’t be able to supply that level of power demand until unspecified upgrades were completed at least five years from now.
Design and environmental review of the ConRAC project are set to be completed in 14–18 months, with construction planned to start in 18–24 months.
The ConRAC facility isn’t the only airport-area project encountering delays in getting more power supplied.
The builder of several warehouses just east of the airport said PG&E indicated it would take until mid-2024 for upgrades to the same substation and distribution lines to upgrade power at an existing building and serve one currently under construction, the Business Journal previously reported.
A PG&E spokesperson said the utility is working on electric load needs for projects in the airport area, and it’s a challenge the company is facing elsewhere in its service area of Northern and Central California.
“Currently, we are seeing capacity constraints driven primarily by these business sectors: transportation electrification, high-tech campuses and warehousing and delivery centers,” said North Coast spokesperson Megan McFarland in an email. “We understand the real-world impacts that capacity constraints have on our customers, and we are committed to making it right for our customers.”
Upgrades to the substation serving the airport area are estimated to take two to four years to complete once started, because of the complexity of the work required and long lead time on the required materials, McFarland said.
PG&E has spent nearly $1 billion on grid capacity upgrades in the past seven years to try to keep up with electricity demand that has been growing for the past decade after several years of flat demand, she said.
“That said, we know this investment has not been sufficient to meet some current and future needs of some customers,” McFarland said.
So the utility plans to pour $15 billion into expanded capacity and “asset health” over the next decade-plus, she said.
Some of the capacity upgrades have been delayed or rescheduled since 2018 as company funds and workers have been diverted to deal with the threat of wildfire, McFarland said.