Is California, North Bay clean energy industry ready for electric vehicles?

The big shift to electric vehicles is on, maybe.

It comes with an announcement of a U.S. Department of Energy goal to put 15 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, part of a more climate-friendly Biden Administration, as well as General Motors’ pledge last month to stop making gas-powered vehicles by 2035 and news that a fossil fuel company, ExxonMobil, lost $22 billion last year.

The question remains whether the clean energy industry will be able to meet the challenge, whether it is having enough charging stations or extended battery life to finally reach a cultural critical mass.

In car country, California earmarked $1.5 billion to develop a comprehensive strategy toward meeting an overall goal of zero emissions by 2035. As of last December, more than 800,000 zero-emission vehicles, including both EVs and hydrogen cars, have been sold in the state, the California Energy Commission reports. State law requires 1.5 million to hit the road in five years and at least 5 million by 2030.

Gas-powered cars contribute a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. To combat Californians’ love for their gas guzzlers, the state Legislature outlined the need to install 250,000 charging stations, including 10,000 direct current (DC) fast chargers under a requirement dictated by Assembly Bill 2127, which was signed into law September 2018.

These charging stations are what will drive the growing demand for zero emission vehicles.

“We’re definitely on the right trajectory,” California Energy Commission spokeswoman Lindsay Buckley said, while also referencing the big picture. “Electric vehicles are good for the electricity industry, which is very invested in their success. Electric vehicle manufacturers are doubling down on this.”

With so many stakeholders and lofty government goals, the industry has made inroads on upgrading the technology to support the venture that moves away from gasoline. For instance, batteries built to charge electric vehicles have improved by 90% in the last five years, with some vehicles averaging about 200 miles on a given charge, Buckley noted.

Maintaining the battery life is contingent on having as many charging stations as possible along roads and highways.

The Golden State now has nearly 67,000 public and shared chargers on hand. More than 5,000 DC versions have been installed.

“Until the infrastructure is built out, people will be reluctant (to buy in to the technology),” said Hemant Bhargava, a professor of technology management at the U.C. Davis Graduate School of Management.

The professor said some EV companies may face an uphill battle if they don’t line up agreements with charging station providers like Tesla has in its own network.

The North Bay is doing its part in increasing the number of stations available.

Through state reimbursements, Sonoma Clean Power has given away 3,400 electric charging stations over the last six years to companies agreeing to have them installed for users. The goal from this point forward is 500 per year.

“We want to stimulate the market,” Director of Programs Cordel Stillman said.

The beefed-up effort from the clean power provider has facilitated more staff and resources to transition into a clean energy era. Part of the plan involves a move into a renovated building on E Street in Santa Rosa.

When asked about whether the state’s electrical grid can sustain millions charging their cars, Stillman indicated that it will depend on when electric vehicles are hooked up.

Clean energy advocates contend that most electric vehicles can maximize replenishing battery life by charging at home overnight. As renewable energy resources go, wind power makes charging efficient at late night. Solar power kicks in during the day through the sun’s energy.

“It’s a matter of using the grid in a smart way,” he said.

“Generally speaking, we view the incorporation of EVs and charging systems as one of a suite of solutions to minimize oversupply, and we are supportive of systems that are responsive to changing grid conditions,” California Independent System Operator spokeswoman Anne Gonzales said.

Marin County is also on board

To gain more efficiency in energy storage, Sonoma Clean Power was joined last October by its power provider to the west — MCE, formerly known as Marin Clean Energy, and other “community choice aggregators” to find partners developing energy-related technologies to help secure 500 megawatts of long-term storage. CCAs are not-for-profit, public agencies aimed at providing clean energy choices including solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal sources to regions.

In respect to its role in installing EV battery stations, MCE has established more than 800 charging ports in its 36 member communities so far, Customer Programs Manager Brett Wiley indicated.

“In California, transportation accounts for the largest portion of our greenhouse gas emissions, so transitioning to zero-emission vehicles is necessary for our climate and air quality,” Wiley said. “Adoption of EVs is also a pocketbook issue.”

More than 26,000 of its customers that drive electric vehicles are using the energy provider as their overall electricity service to fuel their cars, according to MCE.

“EV drivers can generally expect to save about 50% on fuel costs. Thanks to the growth of other Community Choice Energy programs, fueling up with cleaner, 100% American-made electricity is now an option for over 800,000 Californians,” Wiley said.

This is just the start.

“We’re glad to see Gov. Newsom’s 2021 stimulus budget earmarked funds for equity-based EV rebates and public charging infrastructure,” Wiley said. “The good news is, California has a large amount of excess solar energy available during the day.”

The education is just as important as the equipment.

“If we encourage new drivers to charge between the hours of 12 to 3 (p.m.), when the sun is high, we can address some larger grid infrastructure concerns while powering our vehicles with clean energy,” Wiley said.

To support its community alternative energy provider, the Transportation Authority of Marin has identified locations for potential electric vehicle charging stations on public property. TAM plans to also team up with the Marin Climate and Energy Partnership to create a countywide EV readiness plan.

It takes a village

“Clearly, we’re seeing a rapid shift in the auto industry to embracing this technology,” said Doron Amiran, program manager for the Climate Center representing the North Bay.

Amiran cited Tesla upping its game with the proposition of creating a million-mile battery certainly contributes to that big embrace. The electric vehicle giant is also proposing building a new location in Corte Madera.

The goal of blanketing the United States with charging stations and building bigger and better batteries shouldn’t end with just maintaining the level of electricity to operate what we have, Amiran points out. A larger proposal aims to be so efficient with our charging infrastructure that the network of users “resupplies the grid.”

Reducing gasoline-powered cars and collectively timing our charging to maximize energy consumption is long overdue to some stakeholders.

“GM’s not the first to the party,” he said.

And it will take the entire industry to advance the cause, among other factors such as enacting many green-financing mechanisms, Amiran’s clean energy advocacy group pointed out. After all, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan have either similar or bigger goals and a head start, he contends.

“The Climate Center’s mission is to deliver speed and scale solutions to the climate crisis, starting in California. Our goal is to achieve an 80% emission reduction below 1990 levels, net zero emissions by 2030 and net negative emissions by 2035,” Amiran said.

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