California, Facing Power Crisis, Frets Over Electric Car Charging Routines

As temperatures hit triple digits during California's heat wave last week, the state's power grid operators encouraged residents to relieve pressure on the grid by charging their electric vehicles before the peak energy use times of day.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), which oversees the grid, called upon Californians to conserve energy twice last week through the use of Flex Alerts, which ask residents to practice energy conservation on a voluntary basis. Charging electric vehicles before the time period covered by the alerts was included on a list of energy conservation tips the California ISO posted on Twitter, as was avoiding use of large appliances and turning off extra lights.

"Now is the perfect time to do a load of laundry," the state's Flex Alert Twitter account posted on June 18. "Remember to use major appliances, charge cars and devices before #FlexAlert begins at 6 p.m. today."

— California ISO (@California_ISO) June 18, 2021

A graphic the California ISO tweeted earlier in the day also identified proactive electric vehicle charging as a strategy for conserving energy.

Electric vehicles are considered a vital part of California's plan to reduce emissions over the next two decades. Last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom set 2035 as a target date for ending the sale of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles within the state. In the meantime, California energy officials are strategizing to expand electric vehicle ownership and make charging stations more accessible.

Patty Monahan, the lead commissioner on transportation at the California Energy Commission, told Newsweek last month that the times of day Californians choose to charge their electric vehicles will be important in keeping the power grid balanced as reliance on electric vehicles grows.

Electric vehicle charging station
“Charging behaviors matter when it comes to California grid goals," Patty Monahan with the California Energy Commission recently told Newsweek. During California's mid-June heat wave, electric vehicle owners were asked to charge their cars in the mornings and early afternoons to ease pressure on the state's strained power grid. In the photo above, a driver passes an electric vehicle charging station in Los Angeles, California on May 18, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

"Charging behaviors matter when it comes to California grid goals," Monahan said.

She said that energy prices will also be key to helping those new charging behaviors stick.

"By incentivizing, primarily through rates, charging behaviors that capitalize on when renewable energy is being generated—we basically have a win for the grid, and we have a win for the drivers in terms of reduced rates," Monahan said. "Rates are a climate strategy, and California plans on using rates to help drive the charging behaviors that are going to help the state electrify transportation while cutting carbon from the grid and saving ratepayers and drivers money."

Matthew Moniot, a researcher with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said during a recent interview with Newsweek that electric vehicle owners now mostly charge their vehicles at night, but that will likely have to change so that more drivers are charging while energy production levels are higher.

"If you look at aggregate load across the grid, it tends to spike in the evening hours whenever people come home," Moniot said. Though energy use tends to dip overnight while people are sleeping, that is also the time when less energy is produced by solar and wind, both of which are energy sources Moniot said will be increasingly relied upon as states like California continue embracing clean energy.

Increased reliance on solar and wind energy will present a "tricky problem" regarding "how much can we move what's currently overnight charging to be during the daytime hours, when generation may be more excessive," Moniot said.

"The key is flexibility," he added.

Anne Gonzales, a senior public information officer at California ISO, told Newsweek as last week's heat wave was just beginning that Californians tend to take the Flex Alerts seriously and pitch in to conserve energy when doing so is needed. Charging electric vehicles earlier in the day during the heat wave was among the California ISO's energy conservation tips but not forbidden during the Flex Alert time period, the agency told Newsweek on Monday.

As June 18's Flex Alert ended, the California ISO tweeted a message thanking Californians for abiding by their energy conservation recommendations.

"CA, you did it again!" the tweet said. "Your conservation efforts helped keep the #powergrid stable. We appreciate you."