Can we really all drive electric cars?

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SACRAMENTO — With the flick of a pen on the hood of a metallic-red electric Ford Mustang, Gov. Gavin Newsom set in motion the elimination of the internal combustion engine in California.

But turning Newsom’s vision of a cleaner-air future into reality will require 15 years of tough policy decisions to make electric cars affordable and charging stations ubiquitous.

The executive order that Newsom signed last week banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars starting in 2035 would transform the state’s transportation system to an extent not seen in modern history, putting most drivers in cars powered by electricity. What was missing were the details of how California will require automakers to make such a rapid transition to electric cars, which make up just 6% of the state’s car market today.

The governor has said the order will drive innovation in the auto sector, and he’s left it to state regulators to work out many specifics.

“We are marking a new course,” Newsom said as he described the threat posed by climate change, which prompted his order to sharply limit the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. “The opportunity is limitless for the state of California to compete, not only nationally, but globally.”

To get there, clean-car experts and advocates say, California must ramp up the transition today. Electric-car sales would need to increase about 18% a year going forward to hit the governor’s target by 2035.

Here are some of the biggest policy questions that the state must answer to make it happen:

Will cars be affordable? For years, electric-vehicle advocates have battled perceptions that only rich people can afford green cars. Their cause hasn’t been helped by the fact that while tax incentives and government rebates bring prices down, the cars are still out of the reach of many lower-income buyers.

Most popular electric models still have a higher sticker price than gas vehicles, though prices have started to fall. The best-selling models, the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, have a starting price of around $36,000, before various rebates.

Sales of electric vehicles in California surged in 2017 and 2018, but dipped last year as federal rebates for Teslas and Bolts dried up.

Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, said prices should fall in the long run, as battery technology improves. But for now, he added, hefty financial incentives are needed to attract buyers — and those incentives have to come from governments.

“In order to get to 100% (zero-emissions vehicles), we can’t wait for the price to drop 10 years from now,” Tal said. “We are moving to buyers that are more price-sensitive.”

California, however, has been heading in the opposite direction, cutting rebates for electric-car buyers rather than making them bigger.

The state budget for the current fiscal year reduced most funding for individual buyers’ rebates, though it has about $100 million left in the program. In past years, California spent $230 million on rebates, and the money ran out so quickly that buyers were wait-listed for months.

Newsom’s administration cut the standard rebate by $500 per vehicle in 2019, from $2,500 to $2,000, for all-electric cars.

On Wednesday, Newsom noted that the state struggled to eliminate a $54.3 billion deficit for the fiscal year that began in July. But he suggested he is likely to include new incentives for buyers when he proposes a 2021-22 budget in January.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has pushed to expand rebates for years, without success. He said the state should consider borrowing money so it can offer larger rebates immediately, then decrease them gradually over time — giving buyers a nudge to act now.

“The rebate program has not been set up to send a consistent message,” said Ting, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “The program has been long overdue for reform.”

More affordable electric models are trickling onto the market as makers improve batteries, the part of the car that makes it more expensive than a comparable gas-powered vehicle.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that the company would offer a $25,000 electric car within three years. Musk has made similar promises before, without delivering on time. Nevertheless, other electric-vehicle advocates share his optimism about prices.

Buyer incentives will be crucial at first, but electric cars could reach price parity with similar gas models within about six years, said Dan Sperling, founding director at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of the California Air Resources Board, the agency that will implement much of Newsom’s order.

In the long run, he said, many buyers end up spending less on their vehicles because they don’t pay for gas and regular maintenance. With no internal combustion engine, electric cars have far fewer moving parts to break down.

“I like to say that everyone has a price,” Sperling said. “The problem is that people don’t make purchases based upon the total cost of ownership.”

Where will people charge? Getting people into electric vehicles is just the first step. Finding enough places for them to charge, without overwhelming the electricity grid, will require a huge outlay of state money.

Most electric car owners primarily power up their vehicles at home, many with charging stations that cost several hundred dollars. The cars can also be plugged into a standard electrical outlet but take hours longer to recharge that way.

California has major gaps in its public electric-vehicle charging infrastructure — gaps that are most prevalent in low-income communities and rural areas.

According to the California Energy Commission, the state could have about 65,000 fewer public and shared charging ports than it will need by 2025, an estimate that doesn’t take into account a potential surge in electric-car sales prompted by Newsom’s order.

Advocates said the shortfall will require state legislators to invest heavily in charging projects and ease lengthy permit reviews. They also say more fast chargers are crucial.

Fast stations are capable of recharging about 80% of a battery in 30 minutes, compared with several hours for lower-voltage stations.

For many wary buyers, perhaps the biggest hurdle is range anxiety around road trips. Many cannot fathom driving from the Bay Area to Yosemite or Los Angeles if the recharging grid is patchy or could lead to long waits.

Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, one of the state’s largest environmental groups, said drivers should simply look to the example of Norway.

Norway has the highest rate of electric-car sales in the world — this year, electric vehicles have accounted for nearly 70% of all car purchases. The country eased the transition by building charging stations in remote areas. It also built larger charging stations to reduce wait times.

“Anxiety is understandable when you’re dealing with something new,” Phillips said. “It’s 15 years away. It’s going to be gradual; it isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Electric-car advocates say they also expect charging speed and battery range to increase over time — both have steadily gained in recent years. The Tesla Model 3 has a range of 299 miles; the Chevy Bolt can go up to 259 miles.

Energy Commissioner Patty Monahan, who oversees the panel’s transportation efforts, said California must make charging plugs accessible for people living in apartment buildings that don’t have space for multiple outlets. She said stations must also be distributed equitably, so low-income communities can benefit from a decrease in tailpipe emissions.

“This has to be electrification for all,” Monahan said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat the challenges.”

Many of the state’s charging stations now are concentrated in affluent pockets of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

As more Californians start plugging in their cars, the state must harden its electricity grid to prevent blackouts.

“Not answered in Newsom’s directive is where the electricity will come from for an all-electric vehicle fleet in a state that recently underwent rolling blackouts during a heat wave,” Matt DeLorenzo, executive editor at Kelley Blue Book, an auto research company, said in a statement.

Newsom said that critique is overly simplistic. He said the two days of rotating power outages that the state experienced in August were due to an “unprecedented” heat wave, although Pacific Gas and Electric Co. implemented a number of similar blackouts during fire weather last year.

Newsom told TV host Van Jones that the problem California must overcome is a shortage of battery capacity to store solar and wind power for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. He thinks the financial incentives will drive the needed technology as more people shift to electric cars.

What happens to gas stations? California has more than 10,000 gas stations. While Newsom’s order won’t take away any gas-powered cars that are already on the road in 2035, gas stations are clearly not an economic sector with a robust future.

Sanjiv Patel, who owns 15 National Petroleum gas stations in the Bay Area and Central Valley, said his banker has already notified him that he may not be able to get any loans that would extend beyond 2035.

“The biggest concern I have is the displacement of all these workers,” said Patel, who has 60 employees. “For a lot of people, it’s not that easy to transition.”

Patel said the governor should have released a plan to help workers transition to new jobs before he jolted the industry. Newsom’s order requires state agencies to draft a “Just Transition Roadmap” by next summer, outlining how the state can create green jobs for workers displaced by the move away from gas cars.

Electric-car advocates said many convenience stores could survive the transition if they install fast-charging stations. They said stores might thrive as electric-car drivers kill time by buying snacks while they wait for their vehicles to charge up.

“They make their money off of snacks … and cigarettes and Slim Jims,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, a driver advocacy group.

“Some may go away,” he said. “But I think that a lot of them will end up converting into offering multiple fuels.”

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @DustinGardiner

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