December 18, 2020

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Is There Enough Power - Christopher Forrester


On September 23, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order to require that all new passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and trucks that work at ports be zero-emission by 2035. The order also requires all medium and heavy-duty trucks to be zero-emission by 2045.[1] This is a bold move from a state that has a history of taking vehicle emissions seriously. In the 1960s, California adopted the first tailpipe emission standards for vehicles in the United States. California was also the first state to require the production of an increasing number of zero-emission vehicles.

Globally we are almost at the point where preventing a climate catastrophe will not be possible. In the United States, vehicles are a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.[2] It will be necessary for governments to take the risk to move to zero-emission vehicles to show the world it is feasible. Countries worldwide have goals to shift vehicles to zero-emissions that range from no goal to an ambitious 100% zero-emission vehicles sold by 2025.[3] Being the fifth largest economy globally, California can be a leader in what can be accomplished. The lessons they learn, both the accomplishments and errors, can be shared with any government that would like to make the same transition.

No matter what the goal is to increase zero-emission vehicles sold, that increase will mean more electric vehicles sold. This increase in electric vehicles will also mean an increase in electricity demand. Governments that have committed to increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles must consider the increase in demand for electricity. The planning necessary to meet this new demand will require careful thought to ensure that moving to zero-emissions vehicles to prevent a climate catastrophe is not undone through emissions from electricity production.

The savings in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the move to zero-emission vehicles should not be replaced by an increase in GHG emissions from power plants to meet the needs of electric vehicles. Like California, some governments have introduced legislation to reduce the amount of electric generation that can come from fossil-fuel power plants. California is not the only government, state, or nation to make this commitment. Still, more will need to make this shift in power generation so as not to counteract the GHG reduction from zero-emission vehicles.


Is There Enough Power?

As more Californians replace their fossil-fuel cars with electric vehicles, there is a concern that there will be a shortage of electricity in the future. Even before Governor Newsom’s Executive Order to require that all vehicles sold be renewable energy vehicles, Californians were buying an increasing number of electric vehicles. In 2018, electric vehicles accounted for about 8% of car sales.[4] In 2014, the sales of electric vehicles represented about 1% of sales. There is a fear that the market is being forced to move too quickly to shift to eclectic vehicles, which will result in more power shortages in California.

California is being held up as a failure by some critics because of two rolling blackouts this past summer.[5] These blackouts were more from a bad timing of events than a move to renewable energy sources. The culmination of events leading to the blackout was a west coast heatwave, a gas-fired power plant going offline because of the heatwave, solar power reduction because of the sun setting, and wind power at the mercy of a wind speed decrease.[6] California is reliant on some power generated from outside the state to meet these high-capacity times.[7] The heatwave meant not enough power was available for export to California to meet the demand. Additional blackout periods were not necessary because California customers reduced their power consumption when power was needed to cool homes.

The number of people moving to California has increased by about 7% since 2009, and over the same time period, the demand increase for electricity has been about 2%.[8] The lack of an increase in electricity consumption has come mostly from the more efficient use of electricity. Even though the recent electricity demand has increased slowly, estimates for California’s electricity needs may increase by as much as 60% by 2045.[9]

The timing of events that lead to this summer’s blackouts was not evidence of a bad policy to shift power production to renewables. The simplified reasons for the blackouts are that California has always relied on neighboring electric grid managers to supply power. California imports almost one-third of the energy needed for consumers.[10] As a result of a heatwave that covered the west coast, there was not enough power to export to California. California needs to continue the shift to renewables and build on the renewable energy systems already in place.

The shift to renewables in California has created a lot of wind and solar power resources. Currently, there is no storage for this excess power. California grid managers often curtail the energy production of solar and wind farms because of the extra power produced. This excess energy could be put to use and not shut down.

Currently, large scale battery storage is not feasible, but there may be alternatives for using the extra power produced. A shift to charging electric vehicles during the middle of the day would allow solar power generation to be used instead of relying on wind or fossil-fuel power generation at night. These charged vehicle batteries, if enough, are plugged into the grid, could be used as an emergency source of power to enhance the grid and stop a blackout from happening. Charged vehicle batteries could provide power similarly to how home solar power panels deliver power to the grid. Potentially there would have to be extra incentives for a vehicle owner to allow this type of use as this may have a long-term effect on the battery’s health.

Under the fossil fuel model of energy production, baseload facilities[11] produce power at an inexpensive rate. To meet peak demand, energy producers deploy energy production that can be ramped up quickly but has a higher cost than a baseload facility. Under this model, there is often excess energy at night from the baseload facility that can charge electric vehicles inexpensively while their owners sleep. With the change to renewables, users may have to change their habits in response to the shift in power production.

The short answer is that right now, California does have enough energy production to charge the current number of electric vehicles.[12] As more electric vehicles replace fossil fuel burning vehicles, more power production will need to be added to meet the increase in demand. A change may need to take place when, or where, an owner charges their vehicle regularly, but this is more an issue of a habit change and some education than anything else.


The culprits of GHG in the United States

In the United States, the two largest contributors to GHG are electricity generation and the transportation sectors.[13] The primary GHG from both of these sectors is CO2.[14] Since 2005, the United States’ emissions have reduced by 10% - 17%.[15] The United States committed to reducing emissions by 26% - 28% of 2005 levels under the Paris Agreement by 2025.[16] As a whole, there is more work to be done to meet this commitment. Some states do not have the resources to help meet the targets set, and other states do not have the political will to make the decisions required to meet the targets. States like California must lead the way to show not only other states but show countries that a move to reduce GHGs is a feasible undertaking.

The largest contributor to GHG in the United States is the transportation sector. This sector alone accounts for 28% of the GHG emissions.[17] The emissions from this sector come primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. More than half of the transportation emissions come from passenger vehicles, SUVs, light trucks, and minivans. The remaining transportation emissions come from the commercial transportation of goods and people.

The second-largest contributor of GHG in the United States is the generation of electricity.[18] This sector accounts for 27% of GHG emissions in the United States. The largest contributor in this sector is coal-fired power plants. These plants make up 65.8% (17.7% of total United States GHG emissions) of this sector’s emissions and only produce 28.4% of the electricity generated.[19]

These numbers make the argument easy as to why personnel vehicles and power production should move to zero-emissions. Small vehicles and coal-fired power plants account for more than 30% of the total GHG emissions in the United States. The process will not happen overnight, and there will be many who will oppose the change, but that should not be a deterrent. Making the change in these areas are the low hanging fruit in the move to zero-emissions.


Benefits of Shifting to Electric Vehicles and Renewable Power Generation

It would be an easy choice to keep fossil-fuel power generating facilities online, given the projected increase in future demand for electricity. In some cases, these facilities have decades left in their life span, and decommissioning these facilities comes at a high cost to the utilities who own these facilities. Crossing this bridge is necessary. This change may very well require the government to facilitate the change through grants or legislation. The cost of not shifting to renewables is far greater than the cost of shifting to renewables.

The reduction of GHG is directly related to the electrification of the transportation sector and the move to renewable power generation. A major co-benefit to this shift is the related health benefits of cleaner air. With the reduction of the burning of fossil fuels to move cars and generate power comes the reduction of GHGs, the reduction of other chemical compounds, and the reduction of fine particle pollution.[20]

The health benefits of these reductions are a result of cleaner air. Cleaner air will mean thousands of lives saved for those with respiratory and other chronic health conditions. Potentially, the move to electric vehicles and renewable energy could mean as much as $72 billion in avoided health costs in the United States.[21]

Government leaders understand the health benefits that will come from the shift to electric vehicles and renewable power generation. Those with chronic health conditions will benefit from cleaner air. Low-income communities are often exposed to harmful pollution at higher rates making pollution reduction an issue of equity. Government leaders are doing their job in looking after the welfare of those who are the most vulnerable.


Continuing the shift to renewable energy and the electrification of vehicles

Those that can take the lead in forging the path to renewable energy and electrification of vehicles should take the risk. Without the risk-takers, there is only the theory that this change will make the world a better, healthier place. The governments who believe that business-as-usual will be better for their communities may get left behind.

California and New York are the leading examples in the United States to reduce greenhouse gasses. In 2002, California introduced standards for electric generation that ultimately called for 33% of the state’s power to come from renewables by 2020.[22] New York introduced legislation in 2019 to reduce greenhouse emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030.[23] New York plans to meet this goal, in part, by a requirement of renewables to generate 70% of the power required by 2030.[24] For the move to the electrification of vehicles to be effective, Governments will have to support the change in the generation of power with legislation and modification of energy portfolios.


There will be bumps along the path to the electrification of all vehicles and the shift to renewable electric generation. There need to be risk-taking governments with the resources and political will to show the timid that this is a viable path. The health benefits and the issues of equity should be enough to make the move to renewable power generation and electric vehicles.

[1] Cal. Exec. Order No. N-79-20 (Sep. 23, 2020).

[2] Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions | US EPA, US EPA (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[3] (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).


[4] Electric Cars Will Challenge State Power Grids, (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[5] What caused California’s recent blackouts?, Utility Dive (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020), [hereinafter California’s recent blackouts].

[6] California’s recent blackouts

[7] California’s recent blackouts

[8] Will California have enough electricity for all its EVs?, Los Angeles Times (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[9] Will California have enough electricity for all its EVs?,

[10] California - State Energy Profile Analysis - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[11] Electricity consumption happens as peaks and valleys throughout the day. In the middle of the night and the middle of the day there is a valley. There is a peak in the morning when people wake up, and again in the early evening when people arrive home from work. The baseload is that minimum amount needed to meet the demand for the valleys.

[12] California infrastructure cannot meet Gavin Newsom’s 2035 deadline for emission-free automobiles, Washington Examiner (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[13] Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions | US EPA, US EPA (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020).

[14] Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks | US EPA, US EPA (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020) [hereinafter, EPA Gas Emissions].

[15] Paris Disagreement: States Split on Climate, So U.S. to Miss Emissions Target, (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020) [hereinafter Paris Disagreement].

[16] Paris Disagreement.

[17] EPA Gas Emissions,

[18] EPA Gas Emissions,

[19] EPA Gas Emissions,

[20] Road to Clean Air - Electric Vehicle Report | American Lung Association, (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020) [hereinafter, Road to Clean Air].


[21] Road to Clean Air

[22] Roger Karapin, Not Waiting for Washington: Climate Policy Adoption in California and New York, 133 Political Science Quarterly, 13, (2018), available at . v

[23] Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, (2020), (last visited Dec 2, 2020) [hereinafter, Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions].

[24] Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions,