Bird's eye view of cars on a highway.
Credit: Ruiyang Zhang / Creative Commons
Charlie Michel is a retired petroleum engineer who resides in Bremerton, Washington. He submitted this column in cooperation with Coltura, a nonprofit working to improve climate, health, and equity by accelerating the transition from gasoline and diesel to cleaner alternatives.

(Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated to clarify findings from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory research.)

The beauty of a seamless, well-functioning electric grid is that when everything goes right, you don’t have to think about it. You flip a switch or plug into an outlet, and energy is there, ready and waiting. On the other hand, the recent weather-induced failure of the power grid in Texas has exposed fears about grid stability and renewable energy’s ability to provide consistent, reliable energy to our homes and businesses.

These concerns sometimes come up when discussing Clean Cars 2030, a bill in the Washington State legislature that sets a target for all model year 2030 or later passenger and light-duty vehicles sold in the state to be electric. Skeptics question if the electrical grid can handle an enormous influx of electric cars.

The short answer is this: Transitioning to electric vehicles does not pose a threat to our grid or our electricity supply. In fact, if managed strategically, electric vehicles can make our grid more robust and resilient.

To start, Washington State produces more energy than we currently use. Our steady supply of renewable energy means that our excess power is sold to neighboring states, Canada, and Mexico. Research from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the national, western grid, and Washington state regions can handle ​electric vehicle fleet sizes of up to 24 million, 9 million, and 1 million, respectively, without requiring any additional power plants. ​With managed charging, the  number increases to 2.7 million for Washington State. The state has 74,000 EV’s registered as of 2020.

Meanwhile, Washington State imports over $5 billion worth of oil, most of which is used to power our transportation sector. As a former petroleum engineer, I can tell you that not only is oil harmful to the environment, but it is also an inefficient fuel. About as much energy goes into just refining a gallon of gasoline as an electric car uses to go a gallon-worth of miles. Most of the energy stored in oil is burned and emitted as heat, with only one-fifth of the original energy actually powering your car. In contrast, almost all the energy produced by renewable sources like wind, hydro, and solar is usable as energy. This means we can power our cars, trucks, and SUVs with less energy input overall. 

What’s more, electric vehicles can help make our grid more stable by storing power and functioning as a backup power source when necessary. Vehicle-to-grid technology that would allow electric vehicles to provide energy to the grid during times of high demand is being piloted in North Carolina and the United Kingdom. With this technology, electric vehicle batteries store energy generated during off-hours when people are at work or asleep and cars are sitting idle. When energy demand is high during peak hours, electric cars can return the stored energy back to the grid until demand declines and the vehicle returns to charging. In the event of a natural disaster causing power failure, a fully charged electric vehicle could provide enough backup energy to power a home for two days.

Finally, Clean Cars 2030 gives Washington State a clear timeline to prepare our grid for the coming EV evolution. The goal established in the bill applies only to the sale of new cars, model year 2030 or later. Fewer than 5% of cars registered in Washington State each year are new — roughly 302,000 vehicles out of 6.4 million vehicles on the road. The date certain specified in the bill gives ample time to make any needed updates to Washington’s power grid to support a larger number of electric vehicles expected to be on the road in the coming decade and beyond.

Clean Cars 2030 is an opportunity for Washington to be a national leader in the transition to cleaner, healthier transportation. We have the energy and the grid capacity, and with a clear goal, we’ll be able to make further improvements to our grid that result in a more efficient and more resilient system for everyone.