Reducing friction in California’s transition to electric vehicles

The transition to EVs could be as consumer-driven as the shift from film cameras to digital; but California needs to do more to make this happen. This short piece on the state’s 2035 zero emissions vehicle mandate began as an assignment for Yale’s Financing and Deploying Clean Energy Certificate Program; I then decided to dive deeper into the technical and policy changes that must take place before EVs can be convenient for everyone, and the only sensible choice for most. Special thanks to the incredibly talented engineers Christian Sanchez, P.E. and Lisbeth Ruiz for the their thoughtful comments and suggestions.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s goal of selling only zero-emissions cars and light trucks[1] by 2035[2] may seem like a great idea to EV owners who have a charging station in their garage—but how will the transition work out for the state’s millions of apartment dwellers (and others) who can’t charge at home? And can the power grid even support this onslaught of electric vehicles?

Let them fast charge?

The National Renewable Energy Lab says that to achieve broad public acceptance of EVs, these vehicles must cost about the same and be at least as convenient as their fuel-burning counterparts.[3] By 2035, cost differential should not be an issue: A recent Goldman Sachs report predicts that without subsidies, EVs will reach cost parity with gas powered cars about a decade before that.[4]

Convenience remains a stumbling block. Although researchers claim that electric cars with at least 100 miles of range (which are already on the market) can meet most people’s daily driving needs, this rests on the shaky assumption that EV drivers will be able to charge these cars for hours at their homes or workplaces.[5]

Given the state’s huge urban population and limited workplace EV charging infrastructure, charging a car at home or at work is impossible for many. With this problem, why aren’t public DC fast chargers the solution? Because: (1) although some fast charging stations add 100+ miles of range in a few minutes, the reality (illustrated below) is that with current technology, repeated fast charging can rapidly degrade an EV’s range;[6] and (2) today’s grid infrastructure won’t be able to support a massive increase in fast charging.[7]

Frequent fast charging can quickly degrade an electric car’s range.[8]

There is no EV charging crisis now, but unless California tackles these intertwined problems, its 2035 zero emissions vehicle mandate will present those who don’t have access to charging at home or work with a dilemma: repeatedly fast charge (if fast charging stations are even available) and prematurely degrade their cars’ batteries; or waste countless hours charging away from home. This is not a prescription to save the planet; it’s a recipe for resentment and backlash.

Making durable, fast charging EV batteries

There have been some encouraging developments. Recent articles in The Economist and Nature Communications explain that both industry and university researchers in Europe have designed hybrid energy storage devices that combine ultracapacitors (which store energy in an electric field) with lithium-based batteries (which store energy chemically). The result has been working prototypes with energy densities greater than existing batteries; that could add up to several hundred miles of range to an EV in five minutes; and that suffer no damage from rapid and repeated charging.[9]

If hybrid ultracapacitor/lithium ion batteries never become commercially viable in mass market electric vehicles (because big battery breakthroughs are hard),[10] there are several other companies competing for this same fast charging/durable EV battery niche, even if they don’t charge quite as fast as the battery/supercapacitor hybrids. These include QuantumScape, StoreDot, Group 14, and Factorial Energy[11] (all focusing on solid state batteries), and many others (including GM) working with different chemistries.[12] And the dominant players in today’s EV battery market—CATL, LG Energy, Panasonic, and Samsung SDI[13]—will likely have no choice but to develop EV batteries that can survive repeated fast charging.

California doesn’t have to wait to see how this plays out. Jessika Trancik, an MIT professor, found that government investments in research and development have played key roles in technological advances and cost reductions in batteries and other clean technologies.[14] The Golden State has both the political will[15] and the programs—including the California Energy Commission’s Clean Transportation Program and its Grant Funding Opportunities[16] —to help the transportation industry develop affordable, fast charging batteries that will make electric cars practical for everyone. But the state is currently focused on other EV-related issues, including public education campaigns.[17] It needs to do more.

Next generation batteries would require a new infrastructure plan

Battery technology and EV charging infrastructure are closely related; an advance in one will require—at a minimum—a rethinking of the other. Yet California hasn’t done this. Even though huge advances in fast charging batteries are possible in the next decade, the state is on track to install nearly 700,000 level 2 public chargers during that time,[18] possibly locking in this slow charging technology for years.[19]

This is not to suggest that hundreds of thousands of level 2 chargers at parks and malls will have no value.[20] Nor will California need to replace the 100,000 or so gas pumps currently in the state with the same number of level 3 chargers (since most EV owners with garages will likely charge their cars overnight at home). Instead, the key point here is that if California wants its 2035 fossil fuel-burning car ban to stick, there will have to be enough fast charging stations to make EV ownership for everyone at least as convenient as it is to own a car that uses gasoline. And that number is likely to be significantly higher than the 17,000 level 3 DC fast charging stations the state is scheduled to install by 2030.[21]

A cleaner grid that can handle widespread EV charging

Of course, a network of level 3 DC fast chargers will require a grid that can power them; yet portions of today’s grid (such as those in the San Francisco Bay Area) won’t even be able to handle widespread level 2 charging at homes and businesses.[22]

There are both private and public solutions to these problems. On the private side, several companies (including EVgo,[23] Porsche-backed ADS-TEC,[24] and others) have coupled “behind the meter” local energy storage (batteries) with DC fast charging stations that deliver up to 350 kW—the amount of power consumed by more than 200 average homes. By drawing power from the co-sited batteries when charging EVs—and then drawing power from the grid (at a slower rate) when recharging the co-sited batteries—these fast charging stations won’t overtax the grid.

At a larger scale, California has been a leader in modernizing grid infrastructure to include front-of-meter storage and other “non-wires alternatives” (that is, alternatives to building new generation plants and transmission lines).[25] Neighborhood grid scale storage (combined with techniques to manage the timing and rate of EV charging),[26] would enable widespread at-home charging with a relatively modest grid infrastructure buildout. As with the co-sited storage/charging stations discussed above, the general idea is that grid scale batteries charge when local demand is low and discharge when it is high—such as when many EVs are charging at once.[27]

Tesla, which makes grid scale lithium ion batteries, is likely to be a player in the shorter duration (8 hours) front-of-meter storage space, and newer companies (like Form Energy), are deploying less expensive, longer duration batteries using different chemistries.[28] As a side benefit, grid scale storage technologies can also help California’s transition to a carbon-free electrical grid by storing energy generated by its vast solar and wind resources when their output exceeds the state’s power demands.[29]

Internal combustion engines could go the way of 35mm

Today’s electric cars are less expensive to run and maintain than those that spew exhaust—and in less than five years, they will also be cheaper to buy.[30] Yet even though EVs can also be much better for the earth, future charging problems might stop them from helping to save it.[31]

Past technology transitions have been successful when driven mostly by convenience and cost rather than by government decree and limited consumer choice.[32] There was no executive order banning Kodachrome; no policy phasing out one-hour photo labs; no consumer outreach and education campaign touting the benefits of smartphone cameras. Instead, digital photography kneecapped film by undercutting the old technology in price and crushing it in convenience and quality.

The same thing could happen with the transition to zero emissions vehicles if California helps to fund the battery technologies and grid infrastructure that will make EVs convenient for everyone, and the only sensible choice for most. Governor Newsom may have a talent for making people angry,[33] but his EV mandate doesn’t have to.

Reducing friction in California's transition to electric vehicles by Fred Hadidi May 2022
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1 Most zero emissions vehicles in California are battery electric vehicles, which I will refer to here as EVs. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (like Toyota’s Mirai) are also zero emissions vehicles, but they suffer from cost, environmental, and efficiency problems that make them less than ideal. See, Saadat and Gersen, “Reclaiming hydrogen for a renewable future,” an Earthjustice report, August 2021, p. 31.

2 Executive Order N-79-20, September 23, 2020.

3 “Quantifying the Tangible Value of Public Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure,” a report prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the California Energy Commission, July 2020 (NREL 2020).

4 Goldman Sachs Equity Research report, “Batteries: The Greenflation Challenge,” 8 March 2022 (GS 2022).

5 Needell et al., “Potential for widespread electrification of personal vehicle travel in the United States” Nature Energy, Volume 1, Article number: 16112 (16 August 2016). See also, NREL 2020.

6 Truesdell, “Busting 3 Myths About Electric Vehicle Batteries And Charging,” EVmatch, January 24, 2020 (Truesdell 2020). See also, Campbell, “How to buy an electric car,” Financial Times, January 20, 2022; and Sebastian et al., “Adaptive fast charging methodology for commercial Li-ion batteries based on the internal resistance spectrum,” Energy Storage, Vol. 2, Issue 4, August 2020.

7 Srdic et al., “Towards extreme fast charging,” IEEE Electrification Magazine, March 2019.

8 Truesdell 2020.

9 “How to hybridise batteries and supercapacitors,” The Economist, November 7, 2020; Prehal et al., “Persistent and reversible solid iodine electrodeposition in nanoporous carbons,” Nature Communications, 11, September 24, 2020.

10 Cameron, “Niobium: magic metal for battery anodes?” Automotive Engineering, May 2022.

11 White paper: A deep dive into QuantumScape’s fast-charging performance, January 27, 2022; StoreDot; Group 14; Factorial Energy.

12 Heilweil, “How to build a better battery,” Vox, April 18, 2022; Johnson, “Eternally five years away? No, batteries are improving under your nose,” arsTECHNICA, May 24, 2021; California Air Resources Board, “Staff Report: Initial Statement of Reasons,” April 12, 2022 (CARB 2022), p. 75.

13 Ulrich, “The top 10 battery makers,” IEEE Spectrum, 25 August 2021.

14 Trancik, “Technology innovation gives government leverage to drive down emissions fast – here’s how,” The Conversation, April 7, 2021.

15 “California wants to lead the world on climate policy,” The Economist, April 23, 2022.

16 CEC Clean Transportation Program website; CEC Grant Funding Opportunities website.

17 CARB 2022, p. 185.

18 CARB 2022, p. 27.

19 See, for example, Hart et al., “Energy storage for the grid: Policy options for sustaining innovation,” MIT Energy Initiative Working Paper, April 2018, p. 4.

20 See, Cornell, “There’s a cheap solution to the Electric Vehicle Charging Conundrum,” Slate, May 11, 2022.

21 See, CARB 2020, p. 27.

22 Coignard et al., “Will electric vehicles drive distribution grid upgrades? The case of California,” IEEE Electrification Magazine, June 2019.

23 Press release, “EVgo Balances EV Fast Charging With 14 Battery Storage Systems Across 11 EVgo Fast Charging Stations,” April 11, 2019.

24 Press release, “Mobile ultra-fast charging station enables new world record,” 24 June 2021; “High power charging trucks prove reliable, Porsche finds,”, September 17, 2020.

25 See, Wu et al., “Energy Storage: Improving system reliability, deferring network upgrading, taking advantage of markets, and beyond,” IEEE Electrification, September 2021, pp. 104-111.

26 Powell, “Scalable probabilistic estimates of electric vehicle charging given observed driver behavior,” Applied Energy, Vol. 309, March 2022.

27 See, Mahani et al., “Unwiring the country: The United States’ Alternatives Today,” IEEE Power & Energy, March 2022, pp. 14-22. As this article points out, front of meter storage may also provide frequency regulation, load following, and other ancillary services that the grid requires.

28 Lambert, “Tesla secures big 200 MWh Megapack order for a new energy storage project in Australia,” Electrek, March 30, 2022; Crownhart, “Long-lasting grid battery,” Technology Review, February 23, 2022.

29 Balaraman, “‘Brand new problem’: California grid operator considers ways to integrate long-duration storage,” Utility Drive, April 6, 2022.

30 GS 2022. See also, Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC report, “Most electric vehicles are cheaper to own off the lot than gas cars,” May 2022.

31 If cars that use gasoline are banned—and EVs remain unworkable for many—this would likely result in a price spike in the market for used gas cars. See, Sallée, “A Gap in California’s Plan for the EV Future,” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, May 9, 2022.

32 Kothari, “Maximizing Commercialization Success: Where Use-Inspired Research Often Goes Wrong,” Forbes, August 30, 2021.

33 See, Rao, “Why was Newsom’s French Laundry moment such a big deal? Our California restaurant critic explains,” The New York Times, September 14, 2021. For a less serious take on this issue, see The Onion.

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