California is Poised for a Clean Car Revolution

Benjamin Eichert, Director, Let's Green CA!

Date: 03/17/2022
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“The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.”

That’s the eye-catching lead sentence in a recent New York Times article on zero emission vehicle (ZEV) sales. Clean car sales are on the rise in Europe, the United States, and China, while sales of fossil fuel-powered vehicles are stagnating. Clean cars are a powerful (and necessary) tool in the work to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. As the fifth largest economy in the world and a state intrinsically connected to “car culture,” California is poised for a clean car revolution: if we take advantage of the opportunity before us. I want to spend some time today discussing what our transportation future can look like, and what’s standing in the way.

But before we get into the data, let’s talk terminology. You’ll notice that I use the terms zero emission vehicles and clean cars, here’s the difference:

  • Zero emission vehicle refers to a car or truck that emits no harmful pollutants during use: that means no planet warming CO2 emissions or harmful tailpipe emissions like PM2.5 or ozone (aka smog). The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt are examples of ZEVs.

  • Clean car refers to any car that gets most of its power from a non-fossil fuel source with low or zero tailpipe emissions. ZEVs are clean cars, as are electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles, plug-in hybrids that can run mostly on battery power, and high-efficiency traditional hybrids (a good example is the Toyota Prius). Clean car is a broader term than ZEV.

Now that we’re clear on terms, let’s dive into the numbers! California’s statewide ZEV sales recently surpassed 1 million. That’s an incredible achievement, and it didn’t happen by accident. In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the phase-out of new fossil fuel-powered vehicle sales by 2035. He called the move, “the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change.” We agree. But, under the Governor’s executive order, just 18 percent of our state’s fleet would be ZEVs by 2030. Our modeling (see the graph below) shows that if we accelerated the Governor’s timeline to reach 100 percent clean vehicle sales by 2027, California would be on track to see nearly half of in-state light duty vehicles be clean cars by 2030. That accelerated timeline would put our state on a clear path to reach our 2030 climate goals.

California’s ZEV numbers are less impressive in an international context: ZEVs represent 12% of cars sold in the Golden State during 2021. In Norway, 65% of new cars sold in 2021 run on electricity. A similar clean car revolution is happening in the Netherlands: 30% of new cars sold last year are zero emission vehicles. In China that number is 15%, which sounds unremarkable until you put it into context: half of the world’s 2021 clean car sales. Since 2009, China has offered large incentives for clean cars — peaking at nearly $16,000 in 2014 — that have made it the undisputed leader in ZEV sales in just a few decades. Incentive amounts have dropped as the market has grown, but those early investments rapidly created the largest ZEV industry globally.

So what’s holding California back from its own clean car revolution? There are two primary barriers: vehicle costs and the lack of accessibility of public charging. Norway, the Netherlands and China show us what can happen when those barriers are eliminated. “Norwegians are not much more environmentally friendly than other countries,” said Christina Bu, Secretary General of EV Norway, a non-profit representing electric car owners in Norway. “The overwhelming majority of people purchasing EVs says the number one reason is economic.” In Norway, as in China, clean cars are cheaper than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.

26% of Americans cite the cost of clean cars as a barrier to adoption. Numerous California incentive programs (including the Clean Cars for All Program, the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program, the Clean Vehicle Assistance Program, and the Clean Fuel Rewards Program) address the cost concern, but the rebate process is confusing, time-consuming, and generally inaccessible for customers, as a climate advisor to Gov. Newsom recently acknowledged. That’s the first problem that SB 1230 solves. The bill simplifies and streamlines the process of applying for, receiving, and using state incentives for clean cars into one quick, easy process and allows for their use at the point-of-sale to better meet the needs of low- and moderate-income consumers.

While Norway and China provide examples of how cost competitiveness can accelerate the ZEV revolution, the Netherlands demonstrates the necessity of public charging infrastructure. The nation of 17 million has installed more than 60,000 charging stations. California, with its population of 40 million, has approximately 70,000 charging stations. Let me put that another way: in the Netherlands, there is approximately one charger for every 280 people. In California, there is only one charger for every 570 people.

A recent study found that 25% of Americans cite range anxiety (the ability to reach their destination given the availability of public charging infrastructure) as their biggest concern about clean car adoption. Understandably, customers remain hesitant to adopt ZEV technology given the inadequate number of public chargers, particularly in low-income communities. That’s the second problem our bill, SB 1230, intends to solve. SB 1230 initiates the rapid build out of new electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the state. Our bill prioritizes construction in disadvantaged communities and installations that minimize new demand on the state electric system, such as those powered by on-site photovoltaic solar and battery storage.

Here’s the bottom line: California has made meaningful progress getting clean cars on the road. But we’re simply not moving quickly enough to meet our climate goals, and we’re certainly not leading the world. SB 1230 will supercharge California’s clean car revolution by eliminating the primary barriers to access, and puts low- and moderate-income communities at the forefront of the clean energy transition. We can make clean, equitable transportation a reality for all Californians, regardless of income: if we take advantage of the opportunity before us.

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