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California wants EVs to power your house during a blackout and even help bolster the grid

a california road lined with houses, palm trees, and cars
Image Credit: Paul Hanaoka // Unsplash

With the discontinuation of General Motors’ pioneering Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf is now the most affordable electric vehicle on the market. Did you know that this small $28,000 car can power an entire home, or building, and potentially contribute to grid electricity?

This powerful technology is called a bidirectional capability, and many EVs like the Leaf, the Kia EV 6, and the Ford F-150 Lightning have this capacity. Toyota even developed a smart home charging system with its. EV tech

In that sense, Tesla, the EV trailblazer, is even playing catch up to these carmakers, as the company says its EVs will be bidirectional capable by 2025.

At Tesla’s Investor Day event a few months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk himself said that he didn’t expect widespread use of the feature by owners.

“It wasn’t like a conscious decision to not do it; it just wasn't a priority at the time," he said, answering the question of why Teslas currently don’t have this feature. And while he says “We’ve found ways to bring bidirectionality while actually reducing the cost of power electronics in the vehicle,” he still believes not “very many people are going to use bidirectional charging.”

That is unless Tesla’s initial home of California has anything to do with it.

A new California bill, most recently amended in the Senate on May 2, builds out both the infrastructure to support EVs and policy to allow EVs to support the state.

By 2030, the Golden State anticipates 8 million EVs roaming its roads and because of California’s most recent EV law, by 2035, all EVs sold in the state will be electric, and soon after, so will medium and heavy-duty trucks.

As the bill, Senate Bill 233, states this represents a “unique opportunity to leverage significant federal, state, and private sector investments in electric vehicles and electric vehicle service equipment to ensure they are bidirectionally capable.”

The Senate sees this as beneficial for powering homes during blackouts, providing backup for buildings, and even contributing to the grid, especially as the bill states, “Wildfires, heatwaves, and other climate change-fueled extreme weather events pose an increasing threat to the reliability of California’s electrical grid.” During these emergencies, the batteries in EVs could assist renewable energy integration and grid reliability.

In 2020, an unprecedented amount of wildfires raged across California, in 2021, the state spent much of the year in drought, and last year, California reported some of the worst heatwaves on record, so bad that the state asked EV owners to halt charging their EVs to conserve power.

Blackouts are more likely in times of extreme heat in California, leaving people vulnerable without cooling systems. Because of that many people turn on a fossil-fuel-powered generator which brings their own set of problems.

In California, 90% of backup generators are diesel-fueled, which research by economic and public policy consulting group M.Cubed found poses significant obstacles to achieving the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets and drives up nearly $136 million in annual health costs.

In addition to supercharging emissions, these generators release particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide, all harmful pollutants that create smog and exacerbate respiratory conditions.

On the South Coast and Bay Area alone, the report shows 12.2 gigawatts of generator capacity spits out roughly 20 metric tons of fine particular matter annually, which worsens medical conditions like asthma and heart disease.

Plus, the study shows how if it keeps going at this rate, these two areas will see upwards of $130 million in annual health costs due to unfortunate increases in mortality, heart attacks, and hospital visits, particularly in vulnerable communities… all because of small generators.

“This research began when I received a notice that a diesel-fueled generator was being sited near my daughter’s high school,” said M.Cubed partner and lead researcher Steven Moss in a statement in the study’s press release.

“I never expected to find so many diesel-fueled generators operating in San Francisco and across the state of California, especially so close to where people live, work, and play. For a state leading in climate action, this growing reliance on diesel underscores a disconnect between how we’re addressing grid reliability, long-term energy affordability, and the ongoing environmental consequences of diesel dependency.”

As the population and construction in California grow, so does generator capacity. Over the last three years, the diesel generator population has jumped by 22% in the South Coast district and by 34% in the Bay.

On top of steering people away from generators, lessening power plant use, which already disproportionately dirty the air of disadvantaged communities, would be another advantage of using EVs as generators.

Last year, General Motors (GM) and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) piloted EVs as a power source for homes, testing the bidirectional charging technology — which includes a vehicle-to-home (V2H) capable EV and charger — on a small group of homes in San Ramon, California throughout the summer.

GM did not reveal which EVs it would use, but told TechCrunch, last March, that it ultimately intends to use everything in its fleet. That means that eventually, all GM EVs could be capable of acting as generators.

“Imagine a future where everyone is driving an electric vehicle – and where that EV serves as a backup power option at home and more broadly as a resource for the grid,” said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe, in a statement.

“Not only is this a huge advancement for electric reliability and climate resiliency, it’s yet another advantage of clean-powered EVs, which are so important in our collective battle against climate change.”

Still, the idea of scaling vehicle-to-home (V2H) charging has a long way to go.

As experts in this article by Canary Media’s Jeff St. John, explain, many utilities and local permitting agencies aren’t jumping up and down about the idea because uniform standards for widespread installation don’t yet exist. Plus as Grist reports, beyond powering individual homes, there are other obstacles to the broad idea of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and V2H integration.

One big obstacle is whether or not the market… or the aftermarket, is even ready.

Aside from making EVs that are capable, many startups are making aftermarket accessories to make EVs into, essentially, batteries including Colorado-based Emporia Energy, QMerit which is working with the EV automaker startup Lucid, and Montreal-based dcbel.

Other startups, like Germany’s Sono Motors, are also working on making well-priced EVs already equipped with everything a homeowner needs for V2G and V2H bidirectional capability. As Greenbiz reported in November 2022, while it’s not quite on the market yet, it looks impressive with a price tag is less than $30,000.

Many big automakers already sell the equipment necessary for V2G and V2H capabilities, but some can cost as much as $5,000, not to mention the bill after the electrician installs it.

That’s where the California Senate’s adversaries come in.

As the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto-industry advocacy group that opposes the California bill, wrote in a letter to the state senators, mandating all EVs bidirectional capable, “eliminate consumer choice,” and add upwards of $3,300 to a vehicle’s cost.

The group also has equity concerns for consumers buying used or older models without the capabilities. Plus, they don’t believe that the current EV regulatory landscape can properly support the mandate.

Ultimately, the group thinks the bill is premature: “We understand the benefits of bidirectional charging and are working to facilitate more of it,” Curt Augustine, the Senior Director of State Affairs for the group wrote. “However, mandating the technology on the vehicle before the establishment of grid and charger standards may actually limit future capabilities of V2G.”

Nevertheless, at the Senate Transportation Committee hearing last week, state Senator Nancy Skinner, responded to the cost concern, saying that the mandate would ensure that vehicles sold in the most pivotal years of the state’s electric transition, citing the generous grants and rebates, on both the state and federal level, that have driven the EV revolution.

Higher incentive levels for purchasing bidirectional capable EVs could ease the Alliance’s equity concerns, however, this idea currently appears to be struck from the bill.

Grist’s Gabriela Aoun Angueira digs further into the Alliance’s concerns and potential solutions, but in spite of the concerns, the California State Senate is poised to hear Bill 233 later this month. If it is successful, it could change the landscape of California’s grid on and off of blackout season.

According to Kurt Johnson, community energy resilience director at the California nonprofit The Climate Center, via the publication, plugging in a fraction of currently capable EVs would quickly surpass the capacity of the state’s largest power plant, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.

“A Nissan Leaf can run your house for days,” he said. “Even the smallest commonly available EV battery is a multiday energy storage asset for everybody.”

In addition to currently bidirectional capable vehicles and systems from startups and big automakers like GM, Ford, Toyota, and Kia, Volkswagon and Honda are also reportedly looking at the possibility.

Even if the mandate isn’t successful, as more and more automakers view bidirectional charging as the future of EVs and EVs will be the only new cars sold in the state in about a decade, the reality of V2H and V2G integration may be inescapable.


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