News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

1 Million Electric Vehicles in California? A Look at the State of the State

Our chosen lifestyle | Photo: skydiveone/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Environmentally speaking, there wasn't much new in Governor Brown's State of The State message Wednesday morning. The Governor remains committed to building a high speed rail system. He said that the state's drought meant we needed to keep working on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, as well as restoring and protecting wetlands.

For the most part it was all pretty basic stuff, reaffirming prior policy declarations from the Governor's office. But one issue the governor mentioned has attracted some notice from environmental and clean-tech activists.

The issue? Our famously automobile-dependent state's annual gasoline habit, and the technology that offers to replace it.

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Here's what Brown said about our typical methods of getting people and cargo from place to place in California:

[O]ur biggest challenge remains the amount of gasoline Californians use. Each year, our motor vehicles use more than 14 billion gallons of gasoline to travel over 330 billion miles. To put those numbers in perspective, the sun is 93 million miles away...

In so many other ways, California is a pioneer. We have 25 percent of the nation's foreign born and we are the first state in modern times to have a plurality of families of Latino origin. So it's not surprising that California is the state where immigrants can not only dream -- they can drive.

We are also the state of innovation, of Silicon Valley and more venture capital investment than any other state -- by far.

We're on our way to a million electric vehicles and we're building the nation's only high-speed rail.

That "million electric vehicles" statement is a verbatim nod to a campaign called "Charge Ahead California," a coalition of grassroots and mainstream green groups that is in fact pushing for a million electric cars in the state. Considering that there are close to 20 million cars registered in the state at the moment, that seems a fairly reasonable short-term goal, but it's still quite a bit beyond the 50,000 or so electric cars now plying the state's roadways.

Brown's plug for the incentive won him praise from a number of groups. "We are strongly encouraged that the governor not only recognized the importance of cutting our gasoline use and putting a million electric vehicles on the road, he pointed out the crucial role that immigrants and communities of color can play in that effort." said the Greenlining Institute's Vien Truong. "We must move ahead with policies that put clean vehicles within reach of all Californians, regardless of income, race or neighborhood."

Electric cars account for less than two percent of new car sales in the state, according to Charge Ahead, but some demographics are adopting the cleaner-tech vehicles more readily than others. Witness reporter Dana Hull's piece this week in the San Jose Mercury News, in which she reports on "charge rage" among tech industry workers: employees are buying the cars faster than employers can install parking lot chargers, leading to conflict.

That's likely a growing pain of the sort any fledgling consumer-industrial sector experiences. The fact is, Brown's right: our state's profligate use of gasoline is a major contributor to our climate footprint.

Governor Brown attempted to put our gasoline use into perspective by mentioning the distance to the sun. Most of us don't really have a visceral idea of how far away the sun is. A more useful perspective might come from how much of the ecosystem's ability to soak up the greenhouse gases we use in our annual driving habits.

Each gallon of gasoline burned in a car generates roughly 14 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major greenhouse gas contributing to our current climate woes. That means the 14 billion gallons of gasoline we burn each year in the state put 196 billion pounds of CO2 into the air. We reported last week on a study that indicates the state's largest old-growth redwoods may remove as much as 2,400 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere each year: if those figures are correct, you'd need almost 82 million redwoods the size of the world's largest to absorb the CO2 from our gasoline use.

At a typical old-growth forest density of about 20 very ancient redwood trees per acre that would cover 40 percent of the state, which would make it a lot harder to drive everywhere.

Or compare the raw figures to commonly touted greenhouse gas benefits of some prominent renewable energy projects. BrightSource Energy has touted the CO2 emissions reductions from its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System as "the equivalent of taking more than 70,000 cars off the road." Taking the company at its word, the state would need to build 283 more Ivanpahs to offset our annual car habits' climate damage.

Transportation accounted for 37.6 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, making our cars, trucks, SUVs, and semis the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Every individual trip we take may not add much to the overall CO2 burden, but with close to 20 million cars in the state, those little trips do add up. And in a society that offers significant infrastructural disincentives to non-motorized travel, it can be hard to push ourselves to find alternative ways of getting around.

Which the Governor addressed, a bit obliquely, at the end of his address:

Overcoming these challenges will test our vision, our discipline and our ability to persevere. But overcome them we will and as we do, we will build for the future, not steal from it.

Sounds like a plan.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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