PG&E's CEO wants electric vehicles to save California's power grid

PG&E's CEO wants electric vehicles to save California's power grid

(Bloomberg) –PG&E Corp. Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe has an unconventional idea for California’s fragile power grid as climate-related disasters, wildfires and heat waves further strain it. She envisions a future where electric vehicles come to the rescue, feeding excess power back during peak demand to stave off blackouts.

To achieve this, she’ll need the auto industry’s help to pioneer a technology that has yet to be scaled up.

PG&E, California’s largest utility, is pushing General Motors Co. to expand on a pilot program from last year and install bi-directional charging software across its current fleet of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. has been promoting its mighty F-150 Lightning electric truck as a backup power source on wheels, capable of re-energizing homes during an outage, and Tesla Inc. has plans to introduce two-way charging in its models in the coming years. 

“We see great potential,” Poppe said in an interview. “The grid needs those electric vehicles. We need to make it available and it can be a huge resource.”

Patti Poppe during an interview in San Francisco. Referred to as “vehicle to grid,” two-way charging works by sending power to the grid from an electric vehicle’s battery while the car is parked and plugged in. Though promising, the technology remains in its nascent stages and comes with significant costs, which has partly stalled its widespread adoption.

The PG&E grid has faced a barrage of challenges from extreme weather. An unprecedented series of drenching atmospheric rivers this past winter led to prolonged outages that left residents and city officials frustrated. The utility has plans to invest billions of dollars to fortify its grid against wilder weather. To mitigate another major risk — wildfires — PG&E is also resorting to deliberate power outages in high fire-risk zones, to prevent its power lines from sparking blazes.

Read More: Tesla’s Megapack Batteries Are Helping Remake the Power Grid

Poppe says these EVs can play a significant role in contributing to grid stability, particularly during periods of high energy demand and solar power shortages. California, already home to more than a third of all registered electric vehicles in the US, is primed for further growth as the state mandates that all new vehicles sold must be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2035.

In PG&E’s service area alone, which spans from Northern California to the Central Valley, Poppe said there are enough electric vehicles on the road to return roughly 9,000 megawatts of power to the grid — nearly the equivalent of five Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plants.

With bidirectional charging, drivers can take advantage of California’s abundant solar energy during the day to charge their cars, subsequently returning power to the grid during crucial evening periods when demand surges — especially during summer heat waves when air conditioners are running full blast, functioning as an emergency backup power source. 

Utilities will need to offer drivers incentives, such as paying them for the kilowatt hours they contribute. One study estimates ratepayers could save as much as $1 billion a year from using the technology. 

However, some EV owners have reservations about the potential impacts on their car battery’s lifespan, while concerns linger about the installation adding an estimated $3,700 to an EV’s cost, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

PG&E conducted a pilot project last year with General Motors, which is planning to offer bidirectional charging in some models, including the 2024 Chevrolet Silverado, according spokesperson Sanaz Marbley. The company is committed to an “all-electric future” and is exploring new options, Marbley said. 

Two-way charging is also gaining support from the California legislature. A bill authored by state Senator Nancy Skinner would require all new electric vehicles sold in California to have bi-directional charging starting in 2030.

–With assistance from Mark Chediak.