California Must Lead Transition to Zero Emission Vehicles

Ensuring a rapid transition to a zero-emission transportation future will unlock billions in climate, public health, economic, and jobs benefits for all Californians. 

Credit: Photo by Simon Shim on Unsplash

Remarks at the ITS Davis STEPS+ Spring 2021 Research Symposium, May 20, 2021

With a full climate partner in the White House, it’s tempting to think that California may no longer need to lead the transition to zero emission transmission. In actuality, the need is even greater for California to continue its role as the nation’s “laboratory or pioneer” for new, innovative clean air policies, such as the three-way catalytic converter, unleaded gasoline, and the Zero Emission Vehicle program.

Historically, innovation comes from the states not the federal government. With limited windows of opportunity to pass new legislation and adopt new regulations, an incoming administration look towards the states as models for new policies that work.

Although as described below much work is still to be done, California continues to be years ahead of the federal government and most other states on clean transportation policies. California literally has decades of experience with setting strong clean car standards combined with the three necessary complementary ZEV policies: Incentives, Infrastructure, and Information.

The federal government would do well to start by modeling their policies on what has worked in California. An excellent, comprehensive summary of California’s programs is the recent University of California Institute of Transportation Studies report Driving California Transportation Emissions to Zero).

But despite this tremendous progress, there is still more work to be done to ensure a rapid transition.

CARB must set ZEV requirements that lead, not lag, the market

First and foremost, California is in urgent need of updating its ZEV program requirements. Where once California led the world with then strongest ZEV standards, the program now has lost some of its relevancy by being not ambitious enough, being overly generous with credits, and as a consequence, the program requirements lags, rather than leads, the market. California is now only thirteenth in the world in EV market sales shares, surpassed by Germany, France, and the U.K. among others.

In fairness, predicting the rapid pace of technology innovation that has crushed battery prices is very difficult. Just half a decade ago, I sat on two National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committees with some of the nation’s foremost auto experts who refused to believe that battery prices could fall below $200/kwh by 2025 (today’s prices now hover in the low $100’s/kWh and the latest NAS study predicts that cost to fall to as low as $65/kWh by 2030).

To return California to its leadership position, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) should move quickly to require 100% ZEVs by 2035. It also must protect the integrity of the program by sunsetting the pile up of banked credits which are undercutting the program’s requirements, and it must resist the temptation of creating additional ZEV credits that effectively water down the requirements.

The next ten years are critical. CARB cannot let the automaker backload their requirements and do what they have done for most the ZEV program’s existence, delay, delay, delay. A strong 2030 requirement is arguably more important than the 2035 standard to make certain the automakers put into place, now, the strong investments needed to ensure the transition is no longer delayed.

Lastly, California should not and cannot wait for the federal government to lead on strong standards. If the Biden administration sets a strong, science-based ZEV target in regulation, it will almost certainly be because of leadership from California and other clean car states.

CPUC must expeditiously approve utility EV infrastructure proposals

Second, while CARB may have fallen behind the market, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has never fully caught up with market needs. The approval process has proceeded at a glacial rate and fallen critically behind what the market needs.

Although the CPUC has approved about $1.5 billion in utility infrastructure programs, it has taken five years since the passage of SB350 that requires utilities to adopt programs to support widespread transportation electrification, and we can’t wait another half decade for approval of the next $1.5 billion of utility investments.

A new bill AB841, passed in 2020, could help speed up installation of charging infrastructure by requiring utilities to provide needed electrical infrastructure on the utility side of the meter at no-cost to the customer at typical sites, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the costs of installing charging stations for EVs of all types, and eliminating the need for these costs to be treated on a case-by-case basis.

California legislature should approve $3.5 billion of public investments to speed ZEV adoption in a manner that prioritizes equity and environmental justice

Third, more public investments are needed to complement the utility investments and provide direct purchase incentives to speed ZEV adoption, in a manner that prioritizes providing benefits to disadvantaged and low-income communities. California legislature should approve a total of $3.5 billion in ZEV investments, including the Governor’s $1.165 billion proposal to extend the existing infrastructure and incentive programs (including earmarking at least half of the funds for to benefit disadvantaged and low-income communities), the Governor’s Request for $1.4 Billion for Clean Trucks, Buses and Off- Road Equipment, and authorize $500 Million for Transportation Equity Projects. 

In California, we have pioneered new programs to prioritize providing the benefits of ZEVs to disadvantaged and low-income communities, starting in 2014 with the passage of SB1275 The Charge Ahead California Initiative, and complemented by other incentive programs to accelerate the introduction of ZEV medium and heavy-duty trucks.

California should commit to creating high road jobs in the domestic ZEV industry

Fourth, the California should ensure that the ZEV transformation also does leave behind U.S. workers by passing AB794 that provides additional incentives for ZEVs that create good quality, domestic jobs. NRDC and UAW have partnered to support this bill because we both believe green jobs should be good jobs. AB794 would target public spending to the purchase of ZEVs that are manufactured by workers in the U.S. and whose wages and working conditions meet “high-road” standards.

Ensuring a rapid transition to a zero-emission transportation future will unlock billions in climate, public health, economic, and jobs benefits for all Californians. Delivering on that promise will require California to continue to lead on adopting new ground-breaking policies and programs to accelerate adoption of zero-emissions car and trucks, while improving equity and environmental justice and creating good quality jobs.  

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