California Outpaces Other States on Electric Vehicle Efforts, Report Finds

As the push for transportation electrification in the U.S. grows under the Biden administration, California has far outpaced others with its policy efforts, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The latest study from the council, a nonprofit that advances energy efficiency policies and programs, found that electric vehicles account for only about 2% of the market — despite significant technological advancements in recent years. As of 2019, at least 1.4 million plug-in electric cars have been sold since coming on the market, according to data compiled by USAFacts. In 2018, nearly half of the nation’s all-electric registrations were in California alone. That share is similar today, as reported recently by E&E News.

[READ: States Where Climate Change Is Making an Impact on Public Health]

It might not be surprising, then, that California received the highest score for its transportation electrification efforts in the council’s report, and the state is overall “far and away the national leader,” says Shruti Vaidyanathan, the council’s transportation program director and report co-author.

“I think that they have taken a very comprehensive approach to their EV deployment strategy,” Vaidyanathan says of California. “They’re very cognizant of the fact that everyone needs to have access to transportation electrification.”

The council scored states based on their actions related to six policy areas within both the light-duty — passenger cars, light trucks and SUVs — and heavy-duty — large commercial vehicles, buses and heavy pickup trucks — transportation sectors. The areas included electric vehicle and charging infrastructure planning and goal setting, incentives for electric vehicle deployment and equity. California scored a 91 out of 100 — much higher than the No. 2-ranked state of New York, which received 63.5 points. Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington and Washington, D.C., also received top scores. A January report by QuoteWizard highlighted Colorado and Vermont — as well as California — for their electric vehicle adoption efforts.

The findings come as electric vehicles feature prominently in the recent national conversation about transportation and the environment. President Joe Biden announced recently his plan to replace the federal government’s transportation fleet with “clean, electric vehicles made right here in America.” General Motors in late January announced a goal of making the vast majority of its vehicles electric by 2035 and the company carbon-neutral by 2040, according to The Associated Press. Pete Buttigieg, the newly confirmed federal transportation secretary, spoke about the importance of electric vehicles and charging stations during his Senate confirmation hearing, noting that “the transportation sector is now the biggest contributor of U.S. sectors to greenhouse gases.” Transportation is responsible for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions, the ACEEE report notes.

“When it comes to fuel economy and when it comes to improving the climate profile of transportation, I believe we need to be moving forward, and not back,” Buttigieg said on Jan. 21. “This is not only imperative in order for us to meet our climate goals and prevent the destruction of property and life, but it’s also very important for industry to have the kind of certainty and clarity. American companies, American workers should be leading the way in producing, for example, electric vehicles and the most efficient vehicles on the road.”

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As Buttigieg noted during the hearing, Biden has also set a goal of deploying 500,000 charging stations across the country. Charging infrastructure is among the many transportation-related aims of the California Energy Commission, the Golden State’s primary energy policy and planning agency. A draft estimate by the commission puts the actual need at about 1.7 million chargers, says Patty Monahan, the commission’s lead commissioner on transportation.

“We need to rapidly scale up,” Monahan says. “This transition will need public dollars, but it can’t be wholly reliant on public dollars. We’ll need continued investments by utilities and by the private sector in order to meet those goals that we set out in California.”

The goal set by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in a September 2020 executive order will require sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035. One undercurrent that will make bold goals like Newsom’s challenging is equity. While the report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy lauds California and New York for creating transportation electrification programs for low-income communities, it also says that equity “is an area where all states need to improve.” Vaidyanathan says states need to do more to include marginalized communities in electric vehicle planning and policymaking “right from the beginning.” Monahan, of the California commission, says her team is cognizant of the inequalities in access to electric vehicles.

“We’re looking at ways to ensure that everybody can get access to zero-emission vehicle refueling, not just rich people,” she adds. “So if you own a home and you can afford to purchase a new vehicle and have a charger, you know, you’re lucky. We want to make sure that if you’re living in an apartment building, you’re in a low-income community, that you also can get access to convenient, zero-emission vehicle refueling.”

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Vaidyanathan says that the council’s report only rated the top 30 states in an effort “not necessarily to identify the low performers, because the EV market is still growing.” She notes, for example, that while Virginia did not appear in the top 15 overall, it was a top state for its region and has a voucher program for the purchase of larger electric vehicles and transit buses.

“It’s nice to see them sort of focus on what we call the heavy-duty side of it, just because that is even more nascent than the passenger vehicle market for EVs,” Vaidyanathan adds. “And to really achieve greenhouse gas goals, we’re really going to have to address heavy-duty emissions as well.”

Even with the progress that California and other states have made, much more will be needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. Monahan says California now has a “partner” in Biden after she says the Trump administration was “slow-walking the advances that we are going to need to be competitive globally.”

“Internationally, the writing is on the wall,” she says. “Transportation electrification is the future.”

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