Rural Californians worry about Gavin Newsom ban on gas cars

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It’s a long drive to just about anywhere Gary Wright needs to go. A rancher in the far northeastern corner of California, he sometimes has to drive nearly 100 miles, one-way, to get to where his cattle graze. It’s 36 miles to Klamath Falls, Ore., for a significant errand run.

There are only a few gas stations along the routes through the forests and high deserts in Modoc County — let alone electric vehicle charging stations. There are none near the rangeland where Wright’s cattle graze.

So he was baffled when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that California would require all new passenger cars and trucks to be electric or “zero-emission” by 2035 to combat climate change.

Newsom’s directive signaled the governor was moving more aggressively on climate change during one of the hottest years in California, and with wildfires consuming nearly 4 million acres — the most in modern history. But his order comes with significant challenges for rural California and the Central Valley, where many people drive all day for work, not just to commute, and traveling long distances is a necessity.

Electric vehicle companies say battery technology is improving, but as it stands, the best electric car batteries currently on the market have a range of no more than 250 miles. There are few options for electric pickups like the ones Wright would need to haul equipment and livestock trailers over long distances.

“It’s not practical at all,” Wright said. “It’s almost a joke to me. I just can’t fathom anybody thinking that’s a reality.”

Newsom’s executive order expanded on a 2018 mandate by then-Gov. Jerry Brown calling for 5 million zero-emission cars by 2030. Brown also established a goal of 250,000 charging stations, including 10,000 direct-current fast chargers, and 200 hydrogen fueling facilities in the state by 2025.

“It shall be a goal of the State that 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks will be zero-emission by 2035,” Newsom’s order reads. “It shall be a further goal of the State that 100 percent of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in the State be zero-emission by 2045 for all operations where feasible and by 2035 for drayage trucks. It shall be further a goal of the State to transition to 100 percent zero-emission off-road vehicles and equipment by 2035 where feasible.”

“Drayage” trucks are on-road, diesel-fueled, heavy-duty trucks that typically haul freight short distances to and from ports and rail yards.

State officials and environmental groups say the 15-year runway in Newsom’s executive order gives the state plenty of time to make it work for everyone. They say more options for pickups are coming on the market, battery technology is rapidly improving, and the vehicles are growing cheaper as demand increases. Power companies and electric car manufacturers also are already working aggressively to install charging stations across the state, even in its remote corners.

“We’re going to start seeing charging infrastructure everywhere,” said Kathryn Phillips, the director of Sierra Club California.

But concerns about low income and rural areas not having access to charging infrastructure are well-founded, a Sacramento Bee analysis of state data shows. The state will need to make a significant investment if rural or low-income Californians will be able to make the switch to zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

The number of electric vehicle charging stations is multiplying in California, but areas without a high concentration of wealth continue to lag behind the rest of the state, including the vast rural stretches of Northeastern California and much of the Central Valley.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, the number of charging stations open to the public in California grew from fewer than 6,100 in 2014 to more than 27,700 today. Another 35,000 charging stations are private but shared by others at workplaces, apartment complexes or other non-public gathering spots, state data show.

There is a significant correlation between income and the prevalence of fully public charging stations in a community, according to a Bee analysis of Department of Energy and census data.

In ZIP Codes where the median household income is above $100,000, there are about 115 public charging stations per 100,000 residents. That’s much higher than the 55 charging stations per 100,000 residents in cities where median household incomes are between $50,000 and $74,999.

The large and mid-size cities with the most public charging stations per capita are in wealthy parts of the Bay Area or Southern California: Menlo Park, Santa Clara, Los Altos, and Santa Monica, federal data show.

Several counties with the lowest number of public charging stations per capita are in the rural Central Valley, including Yuba, Stanislaus, Kern, Tulare, Sutter, San Joaquin, and Merced.

Some rural counties have a relatively high prevalence of public charging stations. Still, they tend to be tourist destinations such as Mono County or along thoroughfares like Interstate 5, which bisects rural Siskiyou County.

Other rural counties such as Lassen, Lake, Modoc and Calaveras have next to none.

Tesla has no rapid charging stations in the entire northeastern corner of California, east of Interstate 5 from Chico, and north of Lake Tahoe, to the Oregon and Nevada borders. The company’s map of its rapid charging locations does show four of them coming online soon in a few far-flung towns in the area.

The lack of charging stations is reflected in the number of people currently driving zero-emission vehicles in those areas. According to state data, Modoc County has 9,570 residents, but just two zero-emission vehicles are now on the road. Lassen County, population 28,833, has 13.

Charging stations increasing

Newsom’s press office didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Sacramento Bee on Friday. But advocates for his plan say the ongoing expansion of electrical charging stations will only increase the demand for the vehicles in rural areas.

Southern California Edison, the largest power utility in that region, received regulatory approval last month for a $442 million electric vehicle infrastructure program that will create up to 30,000 new charging stations across Southern California over the next four years.

Northern California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., plans to install about 4,500 chargers at workplaces, apartments and condos.

Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen created in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, plans to invest $2 million to install solar-powered chargers in rural communities, expanding upon its 130 charging stations open to the public in the state.

“Electrify America is investing in rural California areas and smaller cities through major investments in small communities along regional routes, focused investment in smaller metro areas and new investment in rural and disadvantaged communities,” Mike Moran, a spokesman for Electrify America & Electrify Canada, said in an email.

“We also strive to ensure that 35 percent of our investments are in disadvantaged and low-income communities across urban, suburban and rural areas.”

But rural transportation advocates say it’s already challenging to get the state to fund traditional road improvements like new interchanges and passing lanes on rural highways, and they fear they’ll be left behind in the same way as the state expands charging access.

For instance, El Dorado County has been advocating for decades without success to get a rest area on Highway 50 between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe, said Woodrow Deloria, the executive director of the El Dorado County Transportation Commission.

“Having to shift gears toward focusing on infrastructure that will support zero-carbon vehicles for charging stations and things of that nature is going to be challenging,” Deloria said. “We have very limited funds.”

Under Newsom’s executive order, the California Energy Commission must perform an analysis on where charging shortfalls are so the state can begin work to “ensure everybody has access to electric transportation,” said Patty Monahan, one of the commissioners.

“It is really critical that we make sure that we have an infrastructure that suits everybody — no matter where you live in the state,” Monahan said. “We have to transition away from the traditional model of going to a gasoline station to where you can charge at your home, or you can charge at work, or you can refuel at a hydrogen station, or you can go to your local grocery store and charge.”

What about pickups, fires?

Some say the sorts of jobs in rural areas don’t lend themselves to electric vehicles.

Rex Bohn, a Humboldt County supervisor, said the governor’s executive order is “a path in the right direction” to fixing the climate change problem.

“But with that being said, we have a lot of people who work remotely in our national forests and our private forestry land, our ranchers … and people who do work remotely for a week at a time and come home for the weekend,” Bohn said, “they use their vehicles on the job.”

He asks: How will they be able to keep their batteries charged when their vehicles are off the electrical grid for days at a time?

Bohn said he suspects the state will end up having to grant waivers for new gasoline or diesel vehicles for those professions.

After this summer’s blackouts, and utilities over the last two years shutting down power to prevent catastrophic wildfires, critics of Newsom’s plan say it’s inevitable someone will have to evacuate from a wildfire, but their car’s battery won’t have the juice to get them out. Some battery-powered vehicles take several hours to fully charge.

“Our state simply does not have the grid capacity to charge the vehicles of millions of Californians,” U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, said in a Facebook post. “Should a (power shutoff) occur during wildfire season and your electric vehicle is not charged, you may not be able to leave your home. This is an extreme public safety concern.”

Newsom insists the state’s green-energy grid will be able to handle the demand by 2035, and carbon-spewing gas and diesel vehicles are contributing to California’s wildlife problem. Cars and trucks are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, responsible for about 40% of emissions in California.

“Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air,” Newsom said in a statement. “Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”

Others say Newsom’s order envisioned cars crammed on urban highways — and not pickups rumbling down lonely rural roads, hauling livestock trailers, farm equipment, boats and recreational vehicles.

Right now, electric car companies don’t have many options for pickups. Tesla unveiled last year its Cybertruck, which looks more like a NASA moon rover than a traditional truck. Prices range from $39,000 to $69,000. GM and Ford have announced they’re working on full-sized electric pickups. Lesser known electric vehicle companies, Nikola, Lordstown, Rivian and Bollinger, also have electric pickups in the works.

The California Air Resources Board says there are more than 70 different models of zero-emission vans, trucks and buses that already are commercially available from several manufacturers, though it notes most are ideal for trips of less than 100 miles.

Monahan, the state energy commissioner, said more pickup models suited for longer trips in rural areas are coming online every day.

“In the next year or two, especially in the next five years, there will be a lot of options,” she said.

Electric vehicle advocates say battery technology is improving so quickly that most of the concerns rural residents have will be addressed by 2035. Monahan said electric vehicles will become as affordable as those powered by fossil fuels; they’re also cheaper to maintain over the long run.

“Over the next five years,” she said, “we should see cost parity with most electric vehicles.”

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.

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