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California board approves 2035 plan to go electric, phase out gas-powered cars

California set itself on a path Thursday to end the era of gas-powered cars, with air regulators adopting the world's most stringent rules for transitioning to zero-emission vehicles.

Gas-powered cars won't be eliminated, but plan is expected to offer ambitious roadmap to reduce emissions

Electric vehicles can be seen charging at a shopping centre in Emeryville, Calif., on Aug. 10. California is poised to require 100 per cent of new cars, trucks and SUVs sold in the state to be powered by electricity or hydrogen by 2035, a groundbreaking climate policy likely to reshape the U.S. car market by speeding the transition to electric vehicles. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/The Associated Press)

California set itself on a path Thursday to end the era of gas-powered cars, with air regulators adopting the world's most stringent rules for transitioning to zero-emission vehicles.

The move by the California Air Resources Board to have all new cars, pickup trucks and SUVs be electric or hydrogen by 2035 is likely to reshape the U.S. auto market, which gets 10 per cent of its sales from the most populous U.S. state.

But such a radical transformation in what people drive will also require at least 15 times more vehicle chargers statewide, a more robust energy grid and vehicles that people of all income levels can afford.

"It's going to be very hard getting to 100 per cent," said Daniel Sperling, a board member and founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. "You can't just wave your wand, you can't just adopt a regulation — people actually have to buy them and use them."

Taking the lead

California Gov. Gavin Newsom told state regulators two years ago to adopt a ban on gas-powered cars by 2035, one piece of California's aggressive suite of policies designed to reduce pollution and fight climate change. If the policy works as designed, California would cut emissions from vehicles in half by 2040.

WATCH | Can California generate enough power to fuel a switch to EVs? 

California lawmakers look to restrict, eventually ban sale of gasoline-powered cars

4 months ago
Duration 2:05
California lawmakers are expected to pass a sweeping plan to restrict and ultimately ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars — a move that the state’s governor described as the beginning of the end for the internal combustion engine. Some experts believe the changes could accelerate a global transition toward electric vehicles.

Other states are expected to follow, further accelerating the production of zero-emissions vehicles.

Washington state and Massachusetts already have said they will follow California's lead and many more are likely to — New York and Pennsylvania are among 17 states that have adopted some or all of California's tailpipe emission standards that are stricter than federal rules. 

The European Parliament in June backed a plan to effectively prohibit the sale of gas and diesel cars in the 27-nation European Union by 2035, and Canada has mandated the sale of zero-emission cars by the same year.

California's policy doesn't ban cars that run on gas — after 2035 people can keep their existing cars or buy used ones, and 20 per cent of sales can be plug-in hybrids that run on batteries and gas. Though hydrogen is a fuel option under the new regulations, cars that run on fuel cells have made up less than one per cent of car sales in recent years.

The switch from gas will drastically reduce emissions and air pollutants. Transportation is the single largest source of emissions in the state, accounting for about 40 per cent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. The air board is working on different regulations for motorcycles and larger trucks.

California envisions powering most of the economy with electricity, not fossil fuels by 2045. A plan released by the air board earlier this year predicts electricity demand will shoot up by 68 per cent. Today, the state has about 80,000 public chargers. The California Energy Commission predicted that needs to jump to 1.2 million by 2030.

The commission says car charging will account for about four per cent of energy by 2030 when use is highest, typically during hot summer evenings. That's when California sometimes struggles to provide enough energy because the amount of solar power diminishes as the sun goes down. In August 2020, hundreds of thousands of people briefly lost power due to high demand that outstripped supply.

That hasn't happened since and to ensure it doesn't going forward Newsom, a Democrat, is pushing to keep open the state's last-remaining nuclear plant beyond its planned closure in 2025 and the state may turn to diesel generators or natural gas plants as a backup when the electrical grid is strained.

More than one million people drive electric cars in California today and their charging habits vary, but most people end up charging their cars in the evening or overnight, said Ram Rajagopal, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who has studied car charging habits and energy grid needs.

If people's charging habits stay the same, once 30 per cent to 40 per cent of cars are electric, the state would need to add more energy capacity overnight to meet demand, he said. The regulations adopted Thursday require 35 per cent of vehicle sales to be electric by 2026, up from 16 per cent now.

But if more people charged their cars during the day, that problem would be avoided, he said. Changing to daytime charging is "the biggest bang for the buck you're going to get," he said.

Both the state and federal government are spending billions to build more chargers along public roadways, at apartment complexes and elsewhere to give people more charging options.

Concerns from auto, oil industries

The oil industry believes California is going too far. It's the seventh-largest oil-producing state and shouldn't wrap its entire transportation strategy around a vehicle market powered by electricity, said Tanya DeRivi, vice president for climate policy with the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group.

"Californians should be able to choose a vehicle technology, including electric vehicles, that best fits their needs based on availability, affordability and personal necessity," she said.

Many car companies, like Kia, Ford and General Motors, are already on the path to making more electric cars available for sale, but some have warned that factors outside of their control like supply chain and materials issues make California's goals challenging.

"Automakers could have significant difficulties meeting this target, given elements outside of the control of the industry," Kia Corp.'s Laurie Holmes told the air board before its vote.

As the requirements ramp up over time, automakers could be fined up to $20,000 US per vehicle sold that falls short of the goal, though they'll have time to comply if they miss the target in a given year.

LISTEN | EVs and Ontario mining:
The United States’ new and historic climate law is being hailed by some Canadian politicians and environmental advocates as a chance to turn Canada into a global hub for electric cars and their components. That’s thanks in part to money and incentives which could potentially give a boost to companies mining in Canada for the minerals used to make electric vehicle batteries. If that sounds like a big green win for Canada — it is. But it’s also more complicated than that. Today, we’re taking a look at one example where the promise of mining for nickel to power electric vehicles is presenting a climate conundrum: the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich but ecologically sensitive region in northern Ontario. Our guest is Emma McIntosh, The Narwhal’s Ontario environment reporter.

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