By Kerry Jackson & Wayne Winegarden
California is getting serious about killing off cars and trucks that burn gasoline and diesel. The governor has ordered it so and an unelected bureaucracy is putting together a schedule for the transition. But no matter how determined they might be, they can’t squeeze a diamond from a lump of coal.
The state Air Resources Board is eager to see electric vehicle sales “triple in the next four years to 35% of all new car purchases,” according to the Associated Press, and has announced the date of a public hearing to consider a regulatory proposal to set “an aggressive target … as part of the goal to phase out the sale of gas-powered cars by the middle of next decade.”
But ZEVs and the electric grid have limitations and neither technology is ready to accommodate a world of 100% zero-emission vehicles. Further, “a group representing the auto industry said meeting the requirements will be “extremely challenging,” adds the AP, while “some environmental groups said the state should set an even more aggressive timeline.”
And thus is the intersection of the private sector economy that builds innovative consumer products that are central to a healthy economy, and the push for government regulations that would snuff out the free market system.
There’s another intersection approaching, and it’s one that promises a wreck. The proliferation of ZEVs is going to crash hard with California’s transition to a renewables-only electricity grid by 2045 due to the inevitable increase in demand ZEVs are going to cause.
Under the Air Resources Board’s proposal, 35% of automobile sales for the model year 2026 must be zero-emission vehicles. By 2035, every new car sold must be a ZEV. Within three years, the year before the 35% ZEV threshold is to be reached, 9% of the state’s electricity generation – and 43% of the power consumed in Central and Northern California by PG&E customers – will be lost as the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County, the last facility of its kind in California, goes dark. There are no guarantees that the lost power will be replaced on a one-for-one basis, which itself would not be enough for current electricity needs. As demand increases with more ZEVs to be fed at the end of charging cables, persistent energy shortages are all but inevitable.
Five years before there will be no more new internal combustion engine cars sold in California, in 2030, the zero-carbon phase-in requires that 60% of the state’s energy will have to be of the renewable variety. To say that “there is some risk that not all these resources will get built on time” to meet increasing demand, as Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, has, is an understatement.
The California Independent System Operator, which manages about 80% of the power grid, reckons that an additional 120,000 megawatts of energy will be needed to meet 2040’s demand. By that time, the state will have lost roughly 15,000 megawatts from the shuttering of natural gas plants. Perhaps that is why a plurality of voters in a recent UC Berkeley IGS poll oppose closing Diablo Canyon and support building more nuclear plants.
Governor Newsom is indeed reconsidering the closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant – which generated 6% of the state’s power last year – that was set to stop its operations in 2025. However, the governor and his administration need to get serious about eliminating energy unaffordability. This means investing in lower emission dispatchable energy sources such as nuclear and natural gas that will generate sustainable and affordable electricity on demand. Instead of imposing mandates, policy leaders should empower consumers and businesses to drive future innovations.
Consumers want lower-emission vehicles, and businesses want to sell them. A viable, and sustainable, market for these technologies will emerge only if the schedule is set by the people who must live with the consequences. Forcing technologies onto the market, even if they remain unaffordable and less viable alternatives, is the surest way to set California’s energy sector up for failure.