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Here's How California Could Implement A Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate If It Really Wanted To

Illustration for article titled Heres How California Could Implement A Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate If It Really Wanted To
Photo: Chevrolet

As you’ve no doubt read on social media by now, the governor of California has sworn a blood oath that by 2035 he’ll grind every gasoline-powered car to dust with the might of his office and force every God-fearing American to submit to the electric car or be summarily executed.

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None of that is true, obviously. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last Wednesday pushing the California Air Resources Board to adopt rules that, 15 years from now, would limit new automobile sales exclusively to zero-emissions vehicles. There is no boogeyman, and they aren’t coming to crush your ’70 Chevelle.

This idealistic executive order (it’s only five pages long) kicking the can a decade and a half down the line has caused an uproar among gross polluters and certified tree huggers alike. The hydrocarbon-lovers are appalled at the idea of giving up their diesel-chugging Super Dutys, but even more astonishing is that the people who actually advocate for EVs are so disillusioned with government action that they don’t believe such a thing is even possible. We sent men to the moon because a president said we should, but something as simple as updating the electricity grid infrastructure is apparently an insurmountable hurdle, even 15 years from now.

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There are, admittedly, some hurdles tripping up this order. First and foremost, Newsom was elected as the 40th governor of California in November 2018, and with a limit of two four-year terms he will not be eligible for the office after 2026. He won’t be anywhere near the governor’s mansion by the time 2035 comes around, so he won’t be able to enforce this executive order himself. Any post-Gavin governor would have the ability to completely ignore the order, or issue one of their own that is counter to this one.

Aside from that, California and Zero Emissions Vehicles have some issues that will need to be addressed before such widespread adoption can take place. It’s the direction we’re all moving in, but can it happen in 15 years? California’s power grid is ancient, cobbled together and barely handle the current draw required to survive unprecedented heatwaves rocking the West Coast recently. Not only is the grid itself a mess, California doesn’t currently generate enough power to meet the needs of a massive influx of EVs, even if there were enough charging stations to go around. And finally, there are environmental concerns that more EVs won’t actually make anything better.

Let’s tackle those one by one to give an idea of what California can in fact do to support the transition to zero-emissions vehicles.

The Electricity Grid

As California gradually transitions its power generation away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources, a few teething problems are surfacing. For one, the state is operating too close to its maximum energy generation capacity, so when fires wreak havoc on the grid and topple power lines, there’s very little reserve capacity to fill in the gaps. California has a habit of importing power from its neighbors in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon when it is feeling the crunch, but as those states follow California’s lead into a cleaner grid, they may have less excess energy to offer.

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While rolling blackouts and widespread outages have plagued California’s grid this summer, it was a long-developing perfect storm of conditions that conspired to make this happen. The national power grid is equal parts ancient and overworked, and that’s before the extra power draw from electric vehicle charging comes fully on line.

There are around 40 million residents in the state of California, and just over 15 million cars registered for road use.

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The California power grid delivers about 255 billion kWh annually, using 2018 figures, the most recent provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There are already around 600,000 electric cars and PHEVs running around California today. So, even knowing that there are many possible variables, let’s run a back-of the-envelope exercise based on some reasonable assumptions. Using an energy consumption rate for an efficient electric car at 0.28 kWh per mile, and assuming everyone in the state drives an average of 15,000 miles per year (EV drivers actually drive fewer miles per year than ICE drivers, but we’re estimating generously here to make a point), we can say each EV in this example consumes 4,200 kWh per car per year. Multiply that by 600,000 cars and you get about 2.5 billion kWh per year consumed to charge electric cars in California. Or, a little more than 1 percent of the annual California electricity consumption.

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Now, if California were to wave a magic wand and every car in the state could be transformed into a battery electric vehicle overnight, that would add around 14.5 million cars needing to charge. Multiply that same 4,200 kWh by 14.5 million new EVs and you get a net electricity consumption increase of roughly 61 billion kWh annually. That’s nothing to scoff at — keep in mind that we’re not accounting for efficiency losses in energy transmission and our assumptions are subject to many external forces — but something like an extra 24 percent tacked on now doesn’t sound quite so unimaginable, does it?

Yes, of course the ancient grid, especially in Los Angeles, would need an update. And yes, of course, California would need to find clean, renewable ways to create that power. And yes, of course there would need to be a massive influx of charging stations so that people could actually charge all of these EVs. So how do they do that?

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Here’s my suggestion. A massive public works project the scale of the Hoover Dam, plus a massive solar microgrid subsidy, plus a massive charging infrastructure subsidy. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

Public Works

California has a homelessness and unemployment problem. Hell, every state in the union does. So why not commit to something we know will be hard, we know will take a lot of work, and create some jobs in the process? California’s unemployment rate recently stood at 13.3 percent, which isn’t as bad as June’s peak of almost 15 percent, though it’s worse than at any point during the post-2008 Great Recession. These are people who want to work, so why not put as many of them to work as you possibly can, building out and managing the construction of an updated power grid.

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Introduced as part of the New Deal in 1933, the Public Works Administration’s entire raison d’être was to invest in infrastructure construction to revive the economy and emerge from the Depression stronger than we had been before. The program was responsible for the creation of bridges, dams, tunnels, highways, airports and the Detroit sewage disposal project. When we work together toward a common goal we can make our country better, and California can make its state better, too.

Of course, the PWA was shut down in 1944 because the wartime economy was booming by that point, and there was no way the country would ever experience economic woes ever again. A California-centric revival of the PWA at a state level could not only help Californians get back to work, but with an updated clean-energy power grid less prone to failure, the state could practically eliminate rolling blackouts and grid-overload-related wildfires like the deadly, devastating Camp Fire in 2018.

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Solar Microgrids

Statewide subsidies for getting consumers to go off-grid are an easy way to both reduce the state’s emissions from power generation and reduce the strain on the grid overall. If everyone in the state were given an opportunity to reduce their draw from the grid by adding photovoltaic solar panels to their roof with minimal financial burden, how many do you think would jump at that opportunity?

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There are already tax incentives in California for shifting to solar, but say you got a 50 percent cash payout from the state to add solar to your roof. Would that be enough to push you over the edge? California also provides for solar-powered homes to route excess energy back to the grid; the power utility then pays the consumer for their electricity. Couple that with solar tech that is getting cheaper every year, and it’s starting to become a money-making exercise for homeowners.

The goal of this program would never be 100 percent adoption of solar, but as we discovered earlier, if every car in California were electric, the state might consume only about 24 percent more than it does right now. Easing the burden of the power grid by adding power generation inside your own home would easily make up the difference consumed by battery-electric vehicles.

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The added benefit of photovoltaic solar and a storage battery in your own home is that your home would no longer be susceptible to power outages from the standard grid delivery strategy. Why wouldn’t you want to be energy independent at home, charging your electric car from pure solar energy and potentially making passive income by selling electricity back to the grid in the process? The state gets reduced strain on the power grid and you get money and peace of mind. Win, win, win.

Charging Stations

The harsh reality of electric cars right now is that around 80 percent of charging is done at home. Only about 6 million households in California are considered resident-owned houses. Which means everyone else is renting and has little to no control over whether their residence has an electric vehicle charging station or not.

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The reason makers of electric cars are mainly courting upper- and middle-class buyers is that they are typically selling to homeowners, or at the very least home renters. If you’re an apartment dweller in the city, your charging options are extremely limited, and often frustrating. More often than not, this is a major concern that’s keeping the American working class from even considering EVs.

Luckily, California has already made steps in the right direction here to aid EV adoption. Last month the state approved a $437 million program to add 38,000 new electric-car charging stations over five years. The program set a target to install at least 50 percent of the chargers in “state-designated disadvantaged communities” and communities that suffer the most from the effects of air pollution. An additional 30 percent of these charging stations are intended to serve apartment buildings and complexes.

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This is a step in the right direction, but only a drop in the bucket compared with what will be needed if the 2035 universal adoption of electric cars comes to fruition. The state now has only about 25,000 charging stations, so this will mean a huge influx of state-sponsored chargers. In addition to that, private companies like Tesla and Electrify America are continuing to add charging stations to their California portfolio.

What’s the breaking point? How many chargers does the state need to reach 100 percent EV adoption? When will it be convenient enough? Probably when there are around a million publicly available EV chargers. That would be enough to allow every privately owned car in the state to charge up every three days on average. Maybe 2 million?

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Environmental Concerns

There is no longer any debating the fact that EVs are responsible for less carbon dioxide release over their lifetime. In fact, in California the average electric car produces about the same amount of carbon as would a 122 mile per gallon gasoline-burning car. As the electrical grid in the U.S. continues to improve its renewables mix and emissions, electric cars will only get cleaner. If you were, for example, charging from your private solar microgrid, your EV’s carbon impact would be related only to its construction and delivery.

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A major concern when it comes to EVs and the environment — and closely connected, human rights — is related to mining. The cold, hard fact is that the extraction of the necessary elements from the earth, vital to creating these large-scale batteries, is damaging to the environment. Certainly the same can be said of any fossil fuel, but if we’re going to care about one aspect of the environment, we have to care about all aspects.

Cobalt supply chains in the Democratic Republic of Congo are particularly fraught with human rights issues related to the use of child and slave labor. Lithium mining is destroying ecosystems. The mining processes of lithium, copper and nickel require a lot of energy and can release toxic compounds into the ground or drinking water of surrounding communities.

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Investment in new battery technologies, such as aluminium-ion, silicon and sodium-ion is potentially the way to make battery production more environmentally friendly, but we have to take steps in the current moment to reduce lithium ion’s impact on the world. As of 2017, only about 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries were recycled in developed nations. Tesla claims that it will be working to increase that number, considering as much as 20 percent of the lithium in a spent EV battery pack can be recovered and built into a new pack.

In addition to this, we need to be more realistic about what kind of battery range we can accept in a daily-driven electric car. You don’t actually need a 500 mile range EV, and if you think about it reasonably, you’ll understand why. Those long-range electric cars mean huge batteries that are material-intensive. Sacrificing range for smaller batteries means lighter weight, greater efficiency, more interior volume and lower cost. Which means a better car all around, right?

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The average driver in the U.S. travels no more than 25 miles per day, and the average American commute to work is around 12 miles. With 150 miles of range, more than half of the country could commute to work for a week without needing to visit a charging station or plug in at home. We, as consumers, need to stop buying vehicles for edge cases and start responsibly buying for our immediate needs.

Historical Context

California first floated a ZEV mandate back in 1990, requiring all manufacturers selling cars in the state to move at least 2 percent zero-emissions vehicles by 1998, a number that was ramped up to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent by 2003. The new executive order is not completely out of left field; it’s something that the state has wanted to do for decades. That original bill was neutered by dealership lobbyists in 1990, but California does require a much higher level of ZEV adoption than any other state in the nation.

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Last year, the total market share of battery electric vehicles in California was 5.3 percent, while the national take rate hovers around 1.4 percent. Maybe this isn’t as ambitious as it has been blown up to be. Maybe it’s a little more realistic than you might think. Maybe it’s nothing to get worked up about, if you believe change is possible. It won’t be easy, but when have we ever gotten anything truly amazing out of taking the easy route?

The fact is, this executive order doesn’t take effect tomorrow. It isn’t planned to do anything until 2035. The average age of a car on the road today is about 12 years, and getting older. You can expect the average gasoline car purchased in 2034 to still be on the road until at least 2048, if not longer. If we don’t have the electricity grid problem, and the solar problem, and the lithium problem, and the charging problem fixed in 28 years, we’re truly and properly fucked.

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

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DISCUSSION

illig
My British German car wasn't that reliable, is now dead

I see at least two issues here.

1. When do people charge their electric cars? When they aren’t using them, which is basically at night. What doesn’t get you any energy at night? Yep, solar. You will need a baseline generation capacity that works 24/7, and if you want that to not come with tons of added CO2, you want nuclear.

2. Sure the average commute might be 25 miles, but I don’t only use my car for work. Like lots of people, my weekends mean going camping, trips, etc. An electric car that only covers me for my daily commute is not going to cut it for a lot of people, so those batteries are going to need to do 300-500 miles of range and they’ll need to be rapidly rechargeable or they won’t work for a lot of people.