Race to Zero: Can California’s Power Grid Handle a 15-Fold Increase in Electric Cars?

As California rapidly boosts sales of electric cars and trucks over the next decade, the answer to a critical question remains uncertain: Will there be enough electricity to power them?

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State officials claim that the 12.5 million electric vehicles expected on California’s roads in 2035 will not strain the grid. But their confidence that the state can avoid brownouts relies on a best-case — some say unrealistic — scenario: massive and rapid construction of offshore wind and solar farms, and drivers charging their cars in off-peak hours.

Under a groundbreaking new state regulation, 35% of new 2026 car models sold in California must be zero-emissions, ramping up to 100% in 2035. Powering these vehicles and electrifying other sectors of the economy means the state must triple its power generation capacity and deploy new solar and wind energy at almost five times the pace of the past decade. 

The Air Resources Board enacted the mandate last August — and just six days later, California’s power grid was so taxed by heat waves that an unprecedented, 10-day emergency alert warned residents to cut electricity use or face outages. The juxtaposition of the mandate and the grid crisis sparked widespread skepticism: How can the state require Californians to buy electric cars if the grid couldn’t even supply enough power to make it through the summer?

At the same time as electrifying cars and trucks, California must, under state law, shift all of its power to renewables by 2045. Adding even more pressure, the state’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is slated to shut down in 2030.

With 15 times more electric cars expected on California’s roads by 2035, the amount of power they consume will grow exponentially. But the California Energy Commission says it will remain a small fraction of all the power used during peak hours — jumping from 1% in 2022 to 5% in 2030 and 10% in 2035.

“We have confidence now” that electricity will meet future demand “and we’re able to plan for it,” said Quentin Gee, a California Energy Commission supervisor who forecasts transportation energy demand.

But in setting those projections, the state agencies responsible for providing electricity — the California Energy Commission, the California Independent System Operator and the California Public Utilities Commission — and utility companies are relying on multiple assumptions that are highly uncertain.

“We’re going to have to expand the grid at a radically much faster rate,” said David Victor, a professor and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at UC San Diego. “This is plausible if the right policies are in place, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s best-case.” 

Yet the Energy Commission has not yet developed such policies or plans, drawing intense criticism from energy experts and legislators. Failing to provide enough power quickly enough could jeopardize California’s clean-car mandate — thwarting its efforts to combat climate change and clean up its smoggy air.

“We are not yet on track. If we just take a laissez-faire approach with the market, then we will not get there,” said Sascha von Meier, a retired UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor who specializes in power grids. The state, she said, is moving too slowly to fix the obstacles in siting new clean energy plants and transmission lines. “Planning and permitting is very urgent,” she said.

The twin goals of ramping up zero-emission vehicle sales and achieving a carbon-free future can only be accomplished, Victor said, if several factors align: Drivers must avoid charging cars during evening hours when less solar energy is available. More than a million new charging stations must be operating. And offshore wind farms — non-existent in California today — must rapidly crank out a lot of energy.

To provide enough electricity to meet total demand, California must: 

  • Convince drivers to charge their cars during off-peak hours: With new discounted rates, utilities are urging residents to avoid charging their cars between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. But many people don’t have unrestricted access to chargers at their jobs or homes.
  • Build solar and wind at an unprecedented pace: Shifting to all renewables requires at least 6 gigawatts of new resources a year for the next 25 years — a pace that’s never been met before.
  • Develop a giant new industry: State officials predict that offshore wind farms will provide enough power for about 1.5 million homes by 2030 and 25 million homes by 2045. But no such projects are in the works yet. Planning them, obtaining an array of permits and construction could take at least seven to eight years.
  • Build 15 times more public chargers: About 1.2 million chargers will be needed for the 8 million electric cars expected in California by 2030. Currently, about 80,000 public chargers operate statewide, with another estimated 17,000 on the way, according to state data. 
  • Expand vehicle-to-grid technology: State officials hope electric cars will send energy back to the grid when electricity is in high demand, but the technology is new and has not been tested in electric cars. 
  • Increase electricity production by up to 42% in 2035 and, under a recent scenario, as much as 85% in 2045, according to California Energy Commission estimates. Generation capacity — the maximum that must be installed to meet demand throughout a given year  — would need to triple by 2045.

Day and night charging

Climate change has already stressed California’s energy grid, especially during hot summer months when residents crank up air conditioners in the late afternoon and early evening. 

Providing electricity during those hot summer evenings — when people use the most — will be a challenge, said Gee of the California Energy Commission.

“That’s what we’re particularly concerned about,” he said. “We have enough electricity to support consumption the vast majority of the time. It’s when we have those peak hours during those tough months.”

The total electricity consumed by Californians is expected to surge by 96% between 2020 and 2045, while net demand during peak hours is projected to increase 60%, according to a study commissioned by San Diego Gas & Electric. 

Southern California Edison worries that if drivers charge during late summer afternoons, electric vehicles could strain the grid, said Brian Stonerock, the utility’s director of business planning and technology. Edison’s service area includes the desert, where customers rely on air conditioning, and their peak use times are when solar power is less available as the sun goes down.

Concerns about the grid “are quite a big deal for us,” he said. “We don’t want people to be confused or lose confidence that the utility is going to be able to meet their needs.”

But for many drivers, charging during the day or late at night is not a problem: Most electric cars have chargers that can be automatically turned on after 9 p.m. But for some drivers, especially those who live in apartments or condominiums, charging during those hours may not be an option. 

That’s because — unlike filling a gas tank — charging an electric car takes much longer. Drivers may not have a reliable place to park their cars for long periods of time during the day while they work or late at night when they’re home. To encourage daytime charging, Victor said the state must drastically boost the number of fast chargers and workplace stations.

Click here to read the full article in California Globe


  1. Brenda Torres says

    AND, an increase in Electric Stoves and Heaters in every house and restaurant, etc….

  2. Has anyone seen a master plan for how California is going to replace fossil fuel with renewables? It seems to me to be a big secret. We hear about all the systems that are going to be shut down but nothing about how, where and when the replacement systems will be created.
    When we finally break off with China (as we will) and we have neither the materials nor the manufacturing to make sufficient numbers of solar, wind and storage devices, what happens then?
    My opinion is that politicians are playing a very dangerous game. Claiming to be saving the world from carbon while stuffing their pockets with expensive green new deal, deals.
    Not one “scientific” prediction supporting the upcoming cataclysmic weather changes have come true. Al Gore has made millions on a book that has been proven to be made up of “convenient untruths”.
    Pay NO attention to the politicians that are hyping more taxes to pay for the fight against fossil fuels. It is a contrived fight that can kill millions with heat and cold all across the country and the world.

  3. Ronald Dressler says

    Wake up Californians! The reason for your gas and electric bill increase is not the power company. It is these stupid laws being passed that require the shift to renewable sources. Vote out the incompetent state leadership.

  4. I see two issues that need to be resolved.
    First, where is the electricity going to come from? While we can dream of more solar and wind power, the reality is the only true option is nuclear power. However, there are environmental groups that will fight against the expansion of any of these types of power.
    Second, why isn’t anyone talking about the negative impact on small businesses? Where are the groups who understand that all the conversion to electric cars will cause many gas stations and auto repair shops to close? Many of the gas stations and auto repair shops in California are actually small businesses.

  5. You can gripe all you want, but until the burden of this idiotic Socialist Democrat Party is voted out of office it will not end.

    On the radio there was a report that the COST OF NATURAL GAS will be very high again. Why?

    Because the Democrats have intentionally made storage so difficult that the amount in storage is at a 5 year low.

    You who call yourself so compassionate Democrats own the bill facing the middle class and the working poor.

    How does it feel that the costs are making decisions about whether paying for heat and cooking or paying for rent?

    You people really are idiots and uncaring jerks. That means the entire Democrat Party starting with Newsom on down. How about you leaving not just the State but the country.

  6. Gas and oil are abundant enough for the next 500 years. That gives us a lot of time to find another reliable energy source.

    • Boris Badenov says

      but but but it was 20 years 30 years ago. This rock is making more, we have a virtual unlimited supply of Natural Gas, of course our idiot governor is importing 90% of our needs when we are sitting on more than enough to keep us going for a long time. They think they are going to put up windmills on the north coast but even St. Greta is now against windmills and the lawsuits are forming, this is going to be fun.

  7. HarveyMushman says

    The grid is already strained… What are they talking (lying) about???

  8. The problem with the strain on the grid will be very easy to solve. They will just make new laws that allow “non-essential” people to drive only during off-peak hours, especial between 11pm and 7am. Remember, these are Progressives that we are talking about, no regimentation of the public is too severe when your goal is Utopian perfection of the world. Gosh, thought people would have learned that during the Covid lockdowns and mask requirements, but I guess not.

  9. When your car has no power you will not be driving anywhere anyway. Just like in the Carter years energy crisis when you could only fill up your car according to your license plate ending number – even ending # even days fill up, odd # odd days. So you adjusted your non-essential driving and saved your gas so you could go to work: in those days you had to go to work. At least today you may have the option to work remote. But do not forget the big bicycle initiative. The cities are making lots of bike lanes so we can use our bikes to get use when we want to go LOL. Maybe, Bart, VTA or the bullet train if they can find enough $$ to keep them running, because based on rider projections they will not fund themselves. No one ever said going green would be inexpensive or easy, not that that ever entered their equation as they have a higher calling.

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