Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
At every level, the state is ramping up for widespread electric vehicle adoption. And it’s ready to throw down with President Trump.
No question about it: The next four years will darken U.S. action on climate change.
In a meeting yesterday with automakers where he promised to roll back environmental regulations, President Donald Trump declared, “I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist.” Here is that extent: The man himself has shown weak signs of backpedaling on his climate denialism. He has appointed a cabinet full of unapologetically pro-oil leaders: The former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, is the designated Secretary of the State. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying Oklahoma attorney general who built his career suing the EPA over emissions-reduction standards and clean-energy targets, is now set to lead that very agency. And this week, the the administration leveled a blanket freeze on all EPA grants and contracts—as well as a media gag.
But momentum behind electric vehicles—one of the most promising avatars of emission-reduction efforts—is building. That’s especially true in California, which is rapidly forging plans to battle the federal administration on most conceivable issues—particularly climate. “California is not turning back,” Governor Jerry Brown told a applauding audience at his State of the State address Tuesday night. “Not now, not ever.”
Will it be enough to combat the new administration’s regressive stance on the environment?
Where the market stands
Modern electric vehicles are pricier than traditional gas-powered cars, and they have less range. But they also have big advantages, writes Joe Romm at ThinkProgress, including “faster acceleration, lower maintenance costs, and no tailpipe emissions.” The cars do have emissions when they’re powered by coal-fired electricity plants, but that’s improving with the spread of cleaner energy sources. There’s also the fraught question of the complete carbon impact of EVs throughout their lifespan. But overall, compared to even the most fuel-efficient gasoline cars, the latest models are substantially cleaner.
The Obama administration invested heavily in the private sector’s development of cheaper, longer-lasting EV batteries, and the feds have helped subsidize customer purchases with tax rebates. Back in 2011, Obama had predicted (or really, hoped to see) one million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015. That didn’t happen; overall sales actually declined in 2015, after a few years of limping growth.
But 2016 saw record EV sales, and the overall market grew a solid 30 percent. Thanks to Obama-era federal investments in EV research, the cost of these cars is dropping, and their range and performance continues to improve as battery technology quickly advances. Meanwhile, global EV markets are accelerating fast. And with 400,000 deposits already paid on Tesla’s Model 3—the all-electric, $35,000 sedan that is supposed to hit the market this year—and the sale of nearly 600 Chevy Bolts, the first mass-market purpose-built EV from GM, in December, their first month on the market, this year could be a breakthrough for the American EV market.
California’s electric dream
The biggest numeric sales gains will likely be in California, which makes plenty of sense: The most populous state is already home to roughly half of all EVs in the country. California has long led the nation with its planet-loving checks on the auto industry, including a recent requirement for car-makers to sell a certain minimum number of EVs every year. California also uses funds from its cap-and-trade system to bankroll tax incentives for would-be electric and hybrid buyers, which supplement federal credits.
But the Golden State has had its own challenges meeting ambitious electrification goals. Back in 2013, Governor Jerry Brown set a target of 1.5 million EVs on the road by 2025, which would be about 15 percent of new vehicles sold in the state. But the share of hybrid and fully electric cars on California streets has hovered at just three percent over the past few years.
The roadblocks are the same ones that plague the national market. First, there’s an awareness gap. According to a 2016 survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, more than 75 percent of California drivers are unaware of of the state’s plug-in incentives, and almost 80 percent didn’t know about the federal tax credit. That, combined with traditionally high EV price tags, has kept a lot of consumers away—and low gas prices have kept them buying regular vehicles. “Range anxiety”—the fear of driving long distances without a charging opportunity in sight—remains an issue as well (despite the fact that 60 percent of U.S. households have access to required plug-in power required, and almost 70 percent of drivers drive less than 60 miles a day). Critics also say the state could be doing much more to incentivize them financially.
Utilities prep EV infrastructure
California heard them. And in the past year, it’s taken big steps to make EVs much more prominent—and financially viable—for customers in all kinds of communities. First, it’s overseeing major investments to expand charging infrastructure on the part of its three largest electric utilities.
California utilities were previously forbidden from building EV plug-in infrastructure. So companies like ChargePoint and Blink built up charging stations in office buildings, apartments, airports, and parking lots around the state. But the network is still fairly small, and the cost of using these stations—which are frequently in disrepair—is also surprisingly high. And with most stations concentrated in areas with relatively high rates of ownership, broader awareness of EVs hasn’t spread much.
Identifying the gap in the marketplace, the California Public Utilities Commission reversed its ban on utilities getting involved. In 2016, the state approved plans from Southern California Electric, Pacific Gas and Electric, and San Diego Gas and Electric—which collectively represent 75 percent of the state’s electricity supply—to deploy 12,500 charging stations in offices and apartment buildings statewide. Those passenger-car-focused stations will serve as a pilot program to shape even bigger deployments in the future.
There’s more: Late last week, those utilities submitted additional proposals to push California closer to its EV goals, calling for more than $1 billion worth of investments in electrification infrastructure. Each utility has a slightly different plan reflecting the needs of their regions, but all three emphasize electrifying heavy-duty vehicles (like shipping trucks, forklifts, school buses, and transit vehicles)—which have an outsized impact on overall emissions. Ratepayers will ultimately be the ones footing the bill for these expansions, so it’s now up to state regulators to weigh the costs and benefits. Details will shift around, but it’s safe to say that Californians can soon expect more clean-running vehicles for students, commuters, and industrial workers alike.
EVs for the people!
One of the most promising elements of the utilities’ plans is their focus on equity. California, like other states, has been rightly criticized for the yawning demographic gaps in EV sales: According to recent research out of UC Berkeley, the folks receiving state rebates have been an overwhelmingly white and affluent crowd—which California, on the whole, is not. The state has a few special rebate programs targeted at moderate-income communities, but they haven’t made a huge splash, due to limited funding and inadequate outreach.
That could be changing. In November, California put an income cap on its incentive programs, as a way to reserve dollars for buyers who could really use them—and boosted the rebates themselves. And of the 7,500 new charging stations PG&E plans to build, at least 15 percent will be located in disadvantaged communities; so will 10 percent of SCE and SDG&E’s 5,000 stations. Given that lower-income neighborhoods of color suffer the most from pollution, higher EV adoption in those areas could yield benefits for local air quality.
West Coast cities are also taking EV adoption seriously, with an eye towards equity. Los Angeles is moving ahead with plans to deploy an electric-vehicle car-sharing program that targets lower-income, air-polluted communities. Neighborhoods around downtown L.A., Westlake, MacArthur Park and Koreatown will get 200 electric charging stations and 100 shared electric vehicles, operated at low cost to customers by a private car-sharing company. At the intersection of shared mobility, zero-emission cars, and equity, the program is the first of its kind.
Los Angeles was also one of four cities to send a massive request to the auto industry demanding more electric vehicles. Earlier this month, the mayors of L.A., San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle collectively queried carmakers on what a fleet of 24,000 electric vehicles—to be split among their cities, and used for municipal purposes—would cost them. Their letter was the first step in a lengthier bidding process, and it didn’t specify what kinds of vehicles might be needed (police cars? garbage trucks? buses?). But the move spoke to a broad, local commitment to electric vehicles—and the potential depth of these cities’ buying power.
California is waving bright, green flags to both consumers and automakers that the future will be electrified. Every other state that’s subsidized and invested in the growing EV market is watching—especially now that California’s vision is under attack by the new administration. The designated EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has made clear his intentions to “review” California’s strict auto-emissions rules (which govern not only California but also several other states), as well as the federal waivers that permit California to impose extra-strength air quality rules. Some automakers are reportedly relishing the idea of rolled-back federal standards.
For now, California’s influence on the auto market remains heavy: Roughly one out of every eight new light vehicles registered in the U.S. are in the Golden State. Its massive infrastructure build-out and incentive boosts could help increase access and push demand for electric drive-trains. And you’d better believe air quality officials are ready to throw down with Pruitt: “You can’t short-circuit industry progress,” Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, tweeted last week. “The conclusion is inescapable: California's vehicle future is electric drive.” Trump won’t shut down the ignition on clean transportation without a very dirty fight.