By The Herald Editorial Board
It’s a fair and important question to ask: If states, including Washington are going to require that new vehicle sales by 2035 be limited to those that produce zero greenhouse gas emissions — primarily electric vehicles — will the juice be there when we plug in our new EVs at home, at work and on the road?
There may not yet be definitive answers for something more than a decade away, but the question is being asked and considered as states and the federal government move ahead with plans in coming years to considerably electrify the transportation sector, which in Washington state accounts for between 40 percent to 45 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — in particular carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide — that are responsible for climate change, as well as particulates and other pollutants that degrade our health.
And it’s not just electric vehicles that will be plugging into the grid. Other efforts to decarbonize the energy we use to heat and cool our homes, heat water and cook our meals, are also expected to increase demand for electricity as more Western Washington homes add air conditioning and the switch is made from gas heating to electric heat pumps, water heaters and electric ranges.
Among those already figuring on the increased demand is the Snohomish County Public Utility District, as The Herald’s Ben Watanbe reported this week. Undeniably, demand for the PUD’s electricity — which already is 95 percent carbon free — is expected to increase, with an additional 260,000 residents coming to the county in the next 20 years. Add to that the quickly growing demand for electric vehicles.
With a little more than 12,000 EVs in the county currently, the PUD had until recently planned on meeting the needs of up to 50,000 EVs by 2040. Taking into account the growing demand for EVs thanks to state and federal rebates and the state mandates for sales, that number is now forecast — according to Brian Booth, the PUD’s senior manager for rates, economics and energy risk management — to hit some 660,000 electric vehicles in the county, a 13-fold increase in Teslas, Chevy Bolts and Ford F-150 Lightning trucks.
Wait, 660,000? What? Or rather, watt?
“We’ve got some work to do and we probably need to get started sooner than later,” Booth told The Herald. Energy demand that has been relatively flat over the last 15 years is now expected to grow dramatically, he said.
Beyond transportation, the PUD is expecting about 30 percent of homes now served by natural gas — which the PUD does not supply — to switch to all-electric service within 40 years, again thanks to rebates and other incentives.
More than just a conduit for power, the PUD also has been active in research that furthers the technology behind energy generation and storage. The PUD has made notable investments in projects such as the Arlington microgrid, a solar energy farm with battery storage that acts as a working research lab of energy technology; and a solar project on Everett’s Casino Road that will power 40 homes in that neighborhood.
The work to plan and build out capacity on the electric grid — including building new substations, upgrading and replacing power lines and transformers, along with adding energy-efficiency measures — will have to be undertaken by all electric utility providers.
And similar work, some of it already under way, will be necessary to build out the network of electric charging stations and help homeowners and workplaces afford their own charging units.
Those investments won’t come cheap. A 2021 Washington Post report regarding the challenges faced by the state of New York to bolster its electrical grid, noted that one study by a national energy consultant estimated that the United States will have to spend between $75 billion and $125 billion to meet the demand of an expected 20 million EVs by 2030.
Yet, the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package made law later that year by Congress and President Biden allocated $65 billion toward upgrading the nation’s electric grid and transmission system, while also making a $7.5 billion investment in a national network of EV charging stations, investments that may be less than what might be needed, but still crucial steps.
The work by California, which is leading the transition to electric transportation — and whose standards at least 16 states, including Washington, are following — also offers some context regarding the demand that will have to be met.
Much was made this summer of the warnings that California’s power grid managers issued during that state’s hottest days, asking consumers to reduce their electricity consumption during periods of peak demand; owners of EVs — which currently total 1.2 million in the state — were asked not to charge their vehicles between 4 and 9 p.m. Most complied with the “Flex Alerts,” and rolling blackouts were avoided, making a good argument for electricity rates that charge less during off-peak hours.
Yet, California’s forecast for electricity demand and supply offer expectations that the capacity will be there. The California Energy Commission’s most recent report says that — even in anticipating 5.4 million light-duty electric vehicles and 193,000 medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles by 2030 — the demand from EVs will draw a maximum of 4 percent of the state’s electric supply, well within its capacity.
That forecast shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to coast, particularly among state and federal officials who now have to implement and provide oversight for the recent investments — state and local — that have been allocated to beef up the grid and build out an EV charging network. The work will be complicated and involves a number of moving parts, a reality acknowledged by state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who earlier this year helped craft the state’s transportation package that included significant investments in electrified transportation.
“As often in public life,” Liias told Crosscut, “we’re building an airplane while we fly it.”
At the same time, officials, federal power regulators and utilities also need to continue work to further develop opportunities for clean generation of electric power through solar farms, offshore and onshore wind turbines, battery technology and other energy storage projects that can gather clean energy at peak production times, storing it for later use when generation ebbs.
State lawmakers also will need to act soon on better harnessing the revenue capability of all those electric vehicles. No longer tied to a gas pump, owners of EVs — currently paying an annual flat fee — will have to start paying a fairer share for roads and those charging stations. The state will need to speed up consideration of a road-usage charge, tracking a vehicle’s mileage to determine a per-mile fee to be paid in lieu of a gas tax.
The goal by Washington and other states to markedly increase the number of electric vehicles on the road does make assumptions that the energy will be there when more are ready to plug in. But the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and unhealthy pollution demands that commitment.
Now’s the time to ask questions, get answers and commit to a path that generates watts rather than “What?”