California infrastructure cannot meet Gavin Newsom's 2035 deadline for emission-free automobiles


California faces a big challenge as it eyes the end of new gas-powered car sales: building out enough charging infrastructure to make it convenient for everyone to purchase an electric car, not just the wealthy.

On Sept. 23, on the hood of a bright red electric Ford Mustang, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order mandating that all of California’s new car sales be zero-emissions models by 2035, a de facto ban on new gas-powered sales. That order also requires new bus and truck sales, whenever feasible, to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2045.

To accomplish that goal, state energy officials, energy analysts, and the automobile industry say that electric chargers would have to be available in every place that people would need to charge. That includes in low-income housing, in rural counties, and at workplaces, grocery stores, shopping complexes, and other places where cars sit idle for long periods.

California officials and energy analysts say it’s doable, but it would require a massive overhaul of the state’s infrastructure and policy.

“The good news is California is already leading the charge with the number of charging stations and charging outlets they have when you look at the U.S. as a whole,” said Lea Malloy, head of research and development for Cox Automotive. The state also has a “powerful mix” of state-level incentives to support electric car purchases and infrastructure build-out, she said.

“They just have to really go into high gear to make sure the infrastructure and supporting system is there to enable this adoption,” Malloy added.

Currently, California has a little more than 62,000 electric charging stations, according to the California Energy Commission. Close to 27,000 of those are public, while the other roughly 35,000 are shared private chargers, such as those at an office or apartment building. Even so, the United States lags far behind other countries in installing chargers.

“The U.S. would need to double the number of public chargers just to catch up to a single city in China,” wrote John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, in a Sept. 25 blog post, citing reports that Beijing alone has more chargers than the entire U.S.

He added that 50% of people in the U.S. don’t have electric charging stations available near their homes. The Alliance’s members produce nearly 99% of the passenger vehicles sold in the U.S.

Newsom’s executive order directs the California Energy Commission to identify gaps in electric car-charging infrastructure every two years.

Right now, one of the biggest challenges is apartment buildings, where about half of California’s residents live, said Commissioner Patty Monahan, the agency’s lead on transportation.

Those multiunit dwellings tend to be older buildings, where electrical upgrades can be more costly, said Amanda Myers, a policy analyst at the research firm Energy Innovation. Installing chargers in those buildings can also trigger building code requirements, which can further increase the cost, she wrote in Forbes.

Limited access to charging within apartment buildings is an equity issue, too, as those residents tend to have lower incomes.

Monahan said the California Energy Commission is working with companies and utilities to put fast chargers at or near apartment buildings and is exploring next-generation, mobile charging options that can fill the gaps.

“I don’t think we have it all figured out, but we are, together with private industry, really working to make sure that this is electrification for all and not just people who live in houses,” she told the Washington Examiner. Monahan also pointed to a commission program that offers greater incentives for building chargers in disadvantaged or low-income regions.

Ubiquitous electric car infrastructure must also come with a mindset shift among consumers.

“A lot of people think that they want something like a gas station model,” Myers said. But privately owned vehicles are mostly idle, and charging should happen during those periods, she added.

That means that “getting consumers really comfortable with that idea of ‘no, there’s not a charger on every corner like a gas station, but that’s OK because I have one in my garage or I have one in my work,’” Myers said.

Beyond simply building enough chargers, California faces another hurdle: making sure its electric grid can handle the increased electricity demand.

Energy Innovation estimates if California’s zero-emissions vehicle sales ramped up steadily to meet Newsom’s targets, electricity demand in the state would increase roughly 9.5%.

Republican politicians are already arguing that California won’t be able to handle the higher demand. They say the state’s increasing reliance on wind and solar power has already jeopardized its grid reliability, citing rolling blackouts the state imposed in August amid peak electricity demand during a severe heat wave.

“California’s record of rolling blackouts — unprecedented in size and scope — coupled with recent requests to neighboring states for power begs the question of how you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote Newsom in a recent letter.

Monahan acknowledges the challenge, but she says the state can solve it with policies encouraging people to charge their cars when the state has excess energy.

During certain times of the day, California’s electricity grid already has so much wind and solar energy that it is curtailing power, Monahan said. With the right policies and programs in place, during certain months of the year, California could charge every electric passenger vehicle with the amount of energy it curtails, she added.

“We want to set the right policies so that vehicles basically run on sunshine,” Monahan said.

Despite the infrastructure challenges, California officials, energy analysts, and much of the automobile industry say it’s no longer a question of if electric cars begin to dominate the market, but when.

The number of electric vehicle options is expected to at least triple by 2025. Battery costs are continuing to fall dramatically, with Tesla’s recent battery announcements carrying the potential to drive those costs down even further. Operating costs of an electric car are already comparable to or cheaper than a gas-powered car.

“When you predict out to 2035, you kind of believe that a lot of Californians are already going to be driving EVs,” Malloy of Cox Automotive said. “So I think it’s a good, good bold measure today, but at the same time, I’m hopeful that in 15 years, it’s kind of a nonevent.”

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