California made it official last week — the state will ban sales of new gasoline-powered cars after 2035.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who issued the executive order that led to the approval of the ban by the Air Resources Board, issued his characteristic boast about California being ahead.
“The climate crisis is solvable if we focus on the big, bold steps needed to stem the tide of carbon pollution,” Newsom said. “California now has a groundbreaking, world-leading plan to achieve 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035. It’s ambitious, it’s innovative, it’s the action we need to take if we’re serious about making this the best plan for future generations. “
Declaring that gas car sales will end in 13 years is the easy part. In fact, transforming a large component of Californian daily life and a large part of the state’s economy will be extremely difficult.
Take, for example, the driving range. The new regulations want zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) sold in California to be able to travel up to 150 miles without recharging. This may be sufficient for daily movement within a compact region. But what about longer journeys?
Let’s say someone who lives in San Francisco wanted to drive to Lake Tahoe for skiing? A distance of 150 miles would not even cover a one-way trip.
The solution could be many recharging stations along interregional highways, but while filling up with gasoline can take 10 minutes, recharging electric cars now takes much longer. Is California ready to build the hundreds of thousands of charging stations that would require a complete conversion to battery cars? Can Californians drive their mandated ZEVs in other states without running out of juice?
Even overnight charging would be a challenge. Those who keep their vehicles in home garages can make it work, but what about apartment dwellers? Even if landlords provide chargers in their designated parking spaces, an apartment usually only has one space while most apartments have multiple tenants with cars. This is why the streets around the housing complexes are filled with parked cars.
How would the order affect low-income Californians who typically buy used cars? Today, battery powered cars are relatively expensive. The cheapest new ones cost roughly $30,000, though federal and state subsidies lower their net costs. Will those subsidies continue?
California has about 29 million cars and light trucks on the road now, and roughly two million new vehicles are sold each year. ZEVS now accounts for about 16% of those sales, the most of any state. Even if 100% of sales are ZEVs, it would take at least 15 years for a full conversion, and while that happens, we’d still need service and fueling services for gas vehicles.
Speaking of which, what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of Californians now employed in providing these services?
Finally, recharging millions of ZEVs would impose a huge new demand on California’s electric grid – not to mention the impact of phasing out household appliances that now use gas in favor of electric appliances.
California is already struggling to meet current energy demand as it also decommissions gas-fired generators in favor of wind and solar facilities. Will we have enough juice to recharge the ZEVs, especially at night when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind might not blow?
Both the reliability of a wind and solar power grid and the availability and price of battery cars will also depend on having enough lithium to build enough batteries to make everything work as envisioned. Given the country’s dependence on lithium from other countries and the fragility of global supply chains, this is no small risk.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.