Axios What's Next

Picture of a futuristic looking skyline.

Welcome to another peek into the near future! Alex Fitzpatrick is out today but Scott Rosenberg is happily filling in.

Today's newsletter is 1,234 words ... 4½ minutes.

1 big thing: EVs aren't straining the grid, and just might save it

Illustration of America as a power strip with multiple electric sockets across the nation, there are a few plugs in sockets.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With California's electric system nearly maxed out during the state's worst-ever September heat wave, officials are asking residents to avoid using major appliances — or charging their electric vehicles — during peak demand to avoid rolling blackouts, Joann Muller reports.

Reality check: EVs aren't what's straining the grid. California had roughly 680,000 registered EVs as of July 1, per S&P Global Mobility, accounting for less than 1% of the state's total electricity demand.

  • Even if there are 5 million EVs by 2030, they'll account for about 7% of annual electricity usage and 1% of peak demand, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Why it matters: As more cars plug in, EVs could actually make the grid more resilient by supplying electricity back to the network when it's needed most.

Driving the news: This week's heat wave is testing the limits of California's power grid.

  • The California ISO, which operates the state's grid, has implemented daily Flex Alerts, urging people to conserve electricity during peak use periods, between about 4 and 9 p.m. local time.

The big question: How can the grid support even more EVs?

  • There is plenty of spare capacity in the nation's electric grid to power hundreds of millions of EVs, multiple studies have found — as long as charging is properly managed.
  • Most EVs charge overnight when people are sleeping and electricity demand is low.
  • Even if they're plugged in all day, owners can schedule when they need their car to be fully charged. Then smart charging technology will automatically find the optimal time to charge.

Where it stands: Many utilities commonly charge customers lower rates for electricity use during off-peak hours, which is helpful when charging an EV at home.

  • Utilities also typically reward EV owners with discounts for participating in "demand response" programs that automatically interrupt charging briefly when demand is high, allowing the utilities to smooth out energy peaks and avoid blackouts.

What's next: Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology takes that relationship even further, enabling utilities to draw power out of an EV when it's most needed. That's already working for school buses.

Yes, but: While V2G technology is promising, some carmakers are worried about protecting their standard eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty if the battery degrades faster than expected.

  • So far, only one car in the U.S., the Nissan Leaf, offers bidirectional charging to the grid.
  • The city of Boulder, Colorado, for example, saved about $250 a month on electricity by using a Nissan Leaf to power a city-owned recreation building in a pilot project.

What to watch: Ford and GM are working with a number of utilities to explore how their vehicles — like the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup, which can power a house in a blackout — can supply electricity to make the grid more resilient.

Share this story.

2. Back-to-the-office moves leave tech uneasy

Illustration of a person working at a desk in the middle of a island

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A lot of CEOs are itching to get workers back to the office, but tech CEOs face an extra uphill battle: Theirs is the industry, after all, that made remote work possible, Scott Rosenberg writes.

Why it matters: The tech industry was built on "dogfooding" — the idea that companies should use the products they push on the public — and every effort by a tech leader to hound reluctant employees back to the office park seems to betray that ideal.

Driving the news: This week Apple began requiring its workers to report to the office at least three days a week.

  • Many leaders in tech and beyond see this week and coming weeks as their "best hope at getting workers on a more regular office schedule before the fall and winter holidays," per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Others are gradually accepting that there's no going "back to 'normal,' the way it was before the pandemic, in most industries," as Jason Bram, an economist at the New York Federal Reserve Bank, told Axios' Emily Peck last month.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has walked a careful line between acknowledging the appeal of remote work but praising in-person "serendipity" and "collaboration" and making clear that he and Apple would really like to see more of the troops at the company's $5 billion, beached-flying-saucer headquarters.

The big picture: Apple's stance is unusually uncompromising among tech's giants.

  • Some tech firms have embraced remote work and even given up their headquarters. Others have tried to let workers choose the mode they prefer.

Our thought bubble: Apple led the personal-computer revolution with an appealing pitch to personal empowerment. The company's reluctance to fully embrace remote work is not only likely to demoralize some of its employees — it feels surprisingly off-brand.

3. New iPhones bring satellite connections down to earth

Image: Apple event video

Apple's iPhone update announcements Wednesday included a new connect-anywhere feature for summoning emergency aid that brings the world of satellite communications directly into the fabric of everyday life, Scott reports.

How it works: If iPhone users face an emergency in an off-the-cellular-grid location, they'll now be able to attempt to open a connection with the nearest satellite.

  • The user will need to aim at open sky and point the phone directly at a satellite. (The app will helpfully tell you where that is.)
  • The connection will be very limited, good enough only to send a text message for help.
  • Apple's app will guide users through a quick decision tree of common emergencies so that their message can get quickly routed to the right responders.

Our thought bubble: By figuring out how to make this system work without any additional hardware, like an external satellite antenna, Apple insured that users who already bring their phones wherever they go will have everything they need in an emergency.

The big picture: T-Mobile and Elon Musk's Starlink have also announced a similar service, but it appears Apple has beaten them to the gate.

4. Sports leagues go virtual

A rendering of the new TGL golf league with the PGA Tour. Photo courtesy of TMRW Sports Group

Sports leagues are launching new digital events and competitions to connect audiences with their name and brand — even if it means viewers won't always be watching the sport itself, Axios' Herb Scribner reports.

Why it matters: Leagues are seeking out a newer and younger audience to gain more ground in our ever-more-online daily lives.

Details: The NFL announced a new video game league last week, called "Tuesday Night Gaming," that will feature real-world NFL legends and YouTube gamers competing against each other in different video games every week.

State of play: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are launching the TGL golf league with the PGA Tour, which will have virtual courses and a tech-infused venue. Their aim is to present golf to a younger audience that has so much of its attention in the digital space, league officials said.

Zoom out: For the NFL, the goal is to find a new way for gamers to connect with the league — even if that means they're watching NFL players play "Super Mario" instead of watching the Super Bowl, said Joe Ruggiero, the NFL senior vice president of consumer products.

Read the rest.

5. Well-timed text may have saved California grid

As record-high temperatures strained California's grid Tuesday, the grid operator moved the state to its highest emergency level around 5:30 p.m. PST.

Yes, but: Less than an hour later, their problem — at least for that day — was solved, Bloomberg reports.

How it happened: The state's Office of Emergency Services sent out an emergency text alert asking people to cut their electricity usage till 9 p.m. And they did.

Our thought bubble: This is just a hint of the sort of simple-but-profound improvement in system behavior you can get by introducing just a little bit of information feedback.

  • That doesn't always require advanced integrated systems — sometimes, a text message can do the trick.

A hearty thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

Was this email forwarded to you? Get your daily dose of What's Next by signing up here for our free newsletter.