The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced on Aug. 25, 2022 that it will ban the sale of gas-powered cars in the state of California beginning in 2035. The goal of the Board is to hasten a transition towards zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), with the caveat that up to a paltry 20 percent of new cars sold can be gas-electric plug-in hybrids. As of February 2022, roughly 12 percent of new cars sold in California are EVs, while nationwide, as of this past January, a mere 3 percent of cars sold were EVs. In order to handle a massive scale-up of EV mandated by the CARB mandate, a number of challenges must be overcome, starting with the power grid itself.
Making the CARB order more consequential is that 17 states currently follow California’s standards rather than federal standards. In effect, this allows California to set the standards and dictate requirements to a significant chunk of the entire country. This is why Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin is seeking to untie Virginia from California’s guidance. The CARB’s outsized sway may change with its most recent decree, as EVs may be more practical in largely temperate California, but not serve consumers in colder climates nearly as well. According to Minnesota Auto Dealers Association president Scott Lambert: “The technology is such that the vehicles just don’t perform that well in cold weather. … We don’t all live in southern California.”
Ironically, just five days after the announcement, on Aug.30, California’s electrical authority, the Independent Systems Operator, released a statement that said: “The top three conservation actions are to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, avoid using large appliances and charging electric vehicles, and turn off unnecessary lights.”
If the Golden State is struggling to keep the lights on today, it begs the question, why should the rest of the country follow an energy experiment that is already yielding a bad result?
California: A Power Play
California imports more energy today than any other state. While only one coal-fired power plant remains operational in the state, natural gas – a fossil fuel – typically supplies roughly one half of in-state electricity generation today. Via a transmission lines network known as Path 46, California receives electricity generated from solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, and coal power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, California imports energy not only from other U.S. states but also from Mexico as well. Reliance upon a foreign country for electricity generation stands out as a massively overlooked vulnerability that the Golden State (and the United States) has neglected to forcefully address.
The California Energy Commission states on its own website that the total amount of electricity produced in the state was 193,569 Gigawatt hours (GWh), down from 201,353 GWh produced in 2011 and even less than the 202,480 GWh produced twenty years ago in 2001. In a twenty-year period, the highest amount of energy produced was in 2006 – during the Schwarzenegger administration. This is a trend that seems to be in exactly the wrong direction to support an EV-centric transportation sector as CARB is aiming for in 2035.
But what does the reduction in power produced over the past ten years tell us?
Using the numerical breakdown of power produced per source shows how California has entirely bet the farm on wind and solar in the past ten years. While wind and solar generation has increased, the amount of electricity generated from other renewable sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass all fell between 2011 and 2021. Large hydroelectric power produced more gigawatt hours in 2011 than did solar in 2021. The decline in capacity and source diversity exposes the 2035 ICE ban as an ideologic action that ignores the welfare of ordinary Californians.
California’s Unique Position As A Regulator
CARB was established in 1967, with its primary raison d’etre of dealing with smog in the Los Angeles area. Out of a total of 16 CARB members, 12 members are appointed by the governor of California, two are appointed by the California State Assembly and the remaining two are appointed by the California State Senate.
Since its implementation in 1970, the Clean Air Act only allows California, not any other state, to apply for a waiver from federal emission standards – because California is the only state that adopted emission standards before March 30, 1966. No other state has its own Air Resource Board. Federal and state regulations have allowed other states to follow California’s emission standards in lieu of federal standards.
Another Impact Of The ZEV Mandate
An AARP report suggests that the average lifespan of a car is 12 years. If the 2035 deadline holds and the final ICE vehicles are produced in 2034, that would indicate that an all-ZEV vehicle fleet on the road would be expected by 2047. Scientists such as Michael Shellenberger have been warning about problems with the rapid adoption of ZEVs. Manufacturers have been concerned about the availability of rare earths such as lithium and cobalt integral to producing the quantity of batteries to power the “zero-emission” vehicles. Carmakers such as Volvo have conceded that the process of building ZEVs produces more emissions than the construction of an ICE vehicle.
While a transition to ZEVs in a decade or so sounds wonderful in theory, idealists are going to run into reality. This would be an earth-shattering transition that would have economic and even national security complications.
The 2000s: California’s Energy Crisis and the Davis Recall
California’s electricity costs went up 800 percent between April and December 2000. The exact causes of this energy increase has been hotly debated, but some believe that the deregulation of California’s energy industry is to blame while others fault Democratic Governor Gray Davis for failing to heed advice to build new power plants. Today, it’s worth noting that the cost of energy currently is a major factor in the Golden State’s poverty rate.
In 2003, Governor Davis instituted higher car registration fees that were widely unpopular. The state was also reeling from the aforementioned energy crisis that resulted in blackouts and high energy bills. This occurred hot on the heels of Davis’ successful re-election campaign the year prior. In one of the most surprising developments, Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully defeated Gray Davis in the recall election.
With the upset victory of the “Governator,” it signaled a mild shift away from progressive regulatory politics as Schwarzenegger undid the car registration tax hike and continued the pace of natural gas power plant building that began later in the Davis administration. This did not represent a long-term setback for Democratic politics in the Golden State as the subsequent governors — Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom — were all Democrats. The 2021 California gubernatorial recall election – which saw Newsom triumph by a wide margin – suggests that the Democratic advantage is here to stay.
Multiple recent polls have indicated that Americans aren’t on board with banning the sale of new gas-powered cars. It’s clear that net-zero idealism has many hurdles to overcome — not the least of which are the realities of power generation. Will the preference of the voters in the U.S. triumph over the mandates of one state? As CARB standards have evolved, in both ambition and reach, at what point have federal lawmakers abrogated their policy responsibilities to a set of unelected California bureaucrats? To some, the CARB EV mandate is an example of California dreamin’. To the rest of the country, however, it could be a step towards an energy nightmare.