Editorial: California needs to spend big now to make its zero-emission-car future a reality

An electric vehicle is plugged into a charging station at a Walmart parking lot in Duarte on Sept. 14, 2018.
An electric vehicle is plugged into a charging station at a Walmart parking lot in Duarte on Sept. 14, 2018.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

If California is going to live up to its clean-car ambitions, the state has to dramatically increase the sales of electric vehicles and the installation of charging stations. Starting now.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal in 2018 of having 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom raised the stakes with an executive order requiring that by 2035 all new cars and light pickup trucks sold in California be zero-emission vehicles. That will be a major market shift — roughly 2% of cars currently on the road are zero emission and only 8% of vehicles sold in California in 2019 were electric or plug-in hybrid models. So there’s a lot of catching up to do.

The state also has to ramp up installation of vehicle charging stations. There are about 67,000 public and shared private chargers today. Twice as many stations will have to be installed every year to reach the 1.5 million chargers needed by 2030 to support all the zero-emission cars and trucks anticipated to be on the road, according to a recent California Energy Commission report. Again, that will take a major public-private sector effort to get charging stations ready for drivers.

Yet, despite the need for immediate action, some lawmakers are questioning Newsom’s plan to spend $1.5 billion to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles. During budget hearings, a handful of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature argued the state shouldn’t spend money on electric cars during a pandemic when relief for small businesses and unemployed workers is more important.


But that’s myopic. California’s leaders can attend to short- and long-term needs at the same time, and it’s a lot easier this year when the state has a surplus. We can provide much-needed relief for those hit hardest by the pandemic and invest in programs to fight the existential threat of climate change.

The frightening reality is that California is already suffering the effects of climate change. We’re seeing more extreme weather patterns and events, including flooding, droughts, deadly heatwaves and devastating fires. Last year tied 2016 as the hottest on record and was also the worst year for wildfires, burning the most acres in recorded state history.

The state cannot end global warming on its own, of course. But California’s ambitious policies have historically driven innovation and pushed companies to move faster to adopt new technology. Since transportation is responsible for more than half the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, it’s especially important to get zero-emission vehicles on the road as soon as possible.

That’s why Newsom’s push to end fossil fuel vehicle sales by 2035 was so important last year. To some skeptics, Newsom’s executive order sounded fantastical at the time. Now in the post-Trump era, the goal looks increasingly realistic. General Motors, which has previously supported efforts to roll back clean-car standards, announced last week that it would sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035.

Newsom’s budget plan calls for using $465 million in cap-and-trade dollars to help lower-income Californians buy electric cars and trucks. There are a slew of new zero-emission models coming on the market this year. Electric vehicles are still more expensive than fossil fuel-powered ones, which is why California should continue to offer and expand subsidies to help people buy or lease zero-emission cars. With production volumes increasing and battery technology improving, such incentives will eventually become unnecessary. By some estimates, electric vehicles may achieve cost parity with combustion-engine cars by 2024.

Newsom also wants to spend $50 million to install vehicle chargers at state-owned facilities and to borrow $1 billion against future vehicle registration fees to accelerate the build-out of charging stations. The state cannot afford to wait on the gradual emergence of a widespread network of these facilities. Some drivers are hesitant to choose an electric car because they worry about the prospect of their battery dying before they can find a charger. The private market isn’t building enough of them because there aren’t enough electric vehicles on the road yet to justify the investment.

That means, for now, the public sector has to step in with money and policies to get chargers built. But the state hasn’t put up enough money to meet the need. A state program that helps cover some of the cost of installing public chargers is oversubscribed by hundreds of millions of dollars. So Newsom is right to spend big now to get the essential infrastructure in place to support this growing segment of the vehicle market. There’s no time to lose.