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California Mandates Electric Cars for 2035 and Here's What That Means

The Road to a Green Future Is Going to Be Bumpy

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  • New California executive order requires that "by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California be zero-emission vehicles."
  • Existing vehicles that run on fossil fuel would be allowed to keep operating.
  • Is this the death knell for the internal combustion engine? In a word: maybe.

Zero emissions starting in 2035 — that's the talking point for California Gov. Gavin Newsom's controversial executive order from September 23, 2020. But as simple as that sounds, there are a lot of questions that need answering and hurdles to overcome. Using all the available information, we'll explain what the executive order means to consumers and the industry as a whole.

What Does the Order Mean?

Starting on January 1, 2035, the executive order would ban the sale of new vehicles that are powered by an internal combustion engine, which includes gasoline, diesel and hybrid electric vehicles.

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That means the vast majority of new vehicles eligible to California consumers from that point on will be full electric vehicles, or EVs.

Crucially, though, vehicles from model year 2034 or earlier with internal combustion engines will be allowed to operate and be sold within or outside of California. There is no ban imposed on these vehicles in the executive order. Yes, that's right: Used cars that run on fossil fuel can still be sold and bought within California after the order takes effect.

It's unclear whether people moving into California in 2035 and after will be allowed to register their internal combustion vehicles in the state. There is also no mention of exemptions for motorcycles, commercial, off-highway (non-registered) and motorsports vehicles. These finer points will likely require further discussion.

Is California Ready?

At the moment, California's infrastructure is woefully unprepared for the 2035 executive order. During recent summer heatwaves, utilities have been forced to impose rolling blackouts to deal with both hot-weather demands and fire danger. At its peak draw while charging, an electric vehicle can consume as much electricity as three households. It's clear the electric grid cannot currently handle this shift to EVs, but a lot can change in 15 years.

There's no doubt that charging and battery technology will improve in the intervening years, but probably not enough to make up for the infrastructure shortfalls. The most promising solution may involve solar energy. An individual home with solar panels that are combined with battery storage (power walls) could lessen the strain on the power grid and drive down EV operating costs.

The cost for going solar is already offset by state and federal incentives, but in order to gain more widespread acceptance, more incentives will be needed, along with close participation of the private sector.

Why California?

California has a history of imposing regulations that exceed federal guidelines. In 1967, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was formed under Gov. Ronald Reagan. That same year, the federal Air Quality Act permitted states to set their own rules. In the year leading up to that and through the 1970s, California's cities were choked by poor air quality. Thanks to newly strengthened emissions guidelines set by the state of California, air quality in the state had improved greatly by the 1980s, and these improvements have continued in the decades since.

Still, there's a desire on the part of the state to do more. According to a 2017 report by the CARB, transportation contributes to 40.1% of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Passenger vehicles are responsible for 28% of emissions, while heavy-duty vehicles contribute another 8.4%. The remaining 3.7% is attributable to rail, ships and aviation. By contrast, industrial sectors emit 21.1%, while electricity generation emits 14.7%. Removing tailpipe emissions from new passenger vehicles will undoubtedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is one of the main motivators behind the 2035 executive order. The rising temperatures are likely to affect agriculture, and California produces a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of all fruits. The cascade effects of a loss in food production would be felt across the nation. The increase in large wildfires has also been substantially attributed to climate change and has dealt devastating blows to California's prestigious wine industry in particular.

Rather than wait for a broader nationwide plan to combat climate change, California is forging ahead. History suggests that a few other states may adopt similar measures initially, while in the longer run the California order could become the blueprint for a federal initiative. Outside of the U.S., 15 countries have made similar pledges to the 2035 executive order. It's also important to note that if California were its own country, it would be the world's fifth largest economy. That kind of financial power gives the state a lot of influence over consumer behavior.

Dispelling Some Common EV Myths

There is a lot of information to help navigate an increasingly electrified future, but there's also a lot of misinformation causing confusion. Here are some of the most common misconceptions:

EVs are just as bad as gas-engine cars.
The amount of energy and materials needed to produce an electric vehicle is indeed more than that for a similar vehicle with an internal combustion engine, and the difference lies in the batteries. Advances in manufacturing, however, are reducing the gap. Meanwhile, EVs use fewer resources in daily operation, which means that over time, an EV that costs more initially becomes increasingly economical to run. In some cases, that breakeven point can be just a few years down the road.

All that energy has to come from somewhere.
True, but according to the California Energy Commission's 2018 report, more than 46% of energy production comes from clean natural-gas generators. Meanwhile, renewable energy contributes to 32% of energy production and continues to trend upward. There is a lot more progress to be made, but EVs are still cleaner on a holistic scale.

Battery component manufacturing is terrible for the environment.
The concerns here are real. Mining for lithium, one of the most important ingredients in a modern EV battery, is indeed not environmentally friendly. It requires pumping water deep underground to dissolve the minerals and then pumping that water back above ground into massive evaporation ponds. Those raw materials then need to be shipped, refined and transported to the carmaker's production facilities.

One of the biggest mining operations is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is regarded as one of the most inhospitable regions in the world. As such, the environmental impact is more tolerable. Other mines in Bolivia, Argentina and Australia are similarly remote. The impact of these operations is still being investigated. It's a fair bet that there will be some undesirable effects that we are unaware of.

That said, oil and gasoline production is also terrible for the environment — not only in extraction but also in refining. High-profile accidents like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon drive that point home.

Battery pack disposal is also bad for the environment.
The main components of an EV battery can be recycled. Yes, even the lithium, cobalt and nickel can be retrieved. It's just not happening yet. It's not currently financially viable to recycle batteries to their full potential since the recycling is very costly and raw materials are relatively less expensive.

As more EVs enter and exit the supply chain, though, more used batteries will be available — and as demand rises, raw materials will get more expensive. There will probably be a tipping point where recycling becomes more profitable. We're getting there.

Edmunds Says

The 2035 executive order raises many questions that haven't yet been clearly answered. There are also a lot of hurdles to overcome. It's entirely possible that the order will fail due to inadequate infrastructure, insufficient vehicle availability, costliness or even changes in leadership. Ultimately, though, we expect that the order will move the needle toward a greener future. A lot can happen between now and 2035, so keep checking this space for the latest updates.

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