In-Depth: As California shifts to electric vehicles, could Flex Alerts disrupt charging?

Electric Cars
Posted at 8:06 PM, Aug 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-01 09:39:56-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – State officials called a Flex Alert Wednesday that urged Californians to scale back power usage during peak hours, including a request to avoid charging electric vehicles between 4 pm and 9 pm.

The timing of the alert comes one week after state regulators voted on a plan to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035.

As California shifts to more electric vehicles, the flex alert is a reminder of the challenges facing the state’s grid and charging infrastructure. Two experts voiced optimism that the public and private sectors will rapidly adapt well before that deadline, and avoid an electric vehicle dystopia.

“I don't see a kind of electric vehicle ‘Blade Runner’ scenario in the future where everyone's worried about where they're going to charge their car and the government's telling you not to charge,” said UC San Diego professor and Brookings Institution fellow David Victor, an expert on energy policy.

Victor co-authored a paper released Wednesday that highlights the major investments needed in the grid. He was part of a study that estimated the grid will need to roughly double in size to meet future demand, largely driven by electric vehicles.

“The grid infrastructure will need to get a lot larger, but [success] depends heavily on our ability to get people to charge at the right time of day,” he said.

Right now, about 80 percent of electric vehicle owners charge at home, typically overnight. Most do what’s called Level 1 charging, which uses a standard 120-volt plug. This option charges the battery with enough juice for about 4 miles each hour.

Some homes and workplaces have Level 2 charging. This uses a 240-volt plug that refills about 12 to 30 miles for each hour of charging.

It’s these Level 1 and Level 2 chargers that put the biggest strain on the grid when used during peak hours.

Then there are DC fast chargers, sometimes referred to as Level 3. These stations are destination chargers, typically found at retail businesses or grocery stores. When drivers connect to these, they’re often not drawing directly from the grid; many fast chargers distribute power from a large battery at the station.

“So they're not going to be subjected to any kind of a flex alert or any kind of peak hour issues. They actually are the best way to store that energy using non-peak power. They're using the cheapest possible kilowatt hour and then they're distributing it when customers want it,” said Scott Painter, CEO of the electric vehicle subscription service Autonomy.

These stations can automate when to draw power from the grid and when to avoid it, he said.

Even a shift towards more Level 2 chargers at workplaces would be helpful, Victor said, because employees use them during the workday, when renewable energy sources like solar are plentiful.

Right now, California has nearly 80,000 public charging stations, but only 7,158 are DC fast chargers. There are 428 fast charger stations in San Diego County.

Companies are racing to build more, with billions of dollars in state and federal incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I think it's going to take probably between two and five years to get to a DC fast charging system that completely circumnavigates this issue and makes it non-issue going forward for consumers,” said Painter. “When you couple batteries with DC fast charging, you are no longer vulnerable to peak power issues and that is going to be especially true during heat waves.”

California’s goal is to have 250,000 shared EV chargers installed by 2025, including at least 10,000 fast charging stations.