The California EV Mandate is Expensive, Impractical, and Likely to Fail (Part 2)

Last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), an unelected regulatory body, announced a plan to try to force the state’s car fleet to change over to electric vehicles. The plan seeks to ban the sale of new purely hydrocarbon-fueled cars in California by the year 2035. The plan will be very expensive, is completely impractical, and is certain to fail, as even CARB seems to acknowledge by reserving the right to amend the targets if the market fails to respond to their diktat. The only question is how much cost and disruption will happen before CARB is forced to accept reality.

This is part two of a three-part series focusing on the CARB 2035 plan. Part one can be read here.

Part 2: Impractical

California’s EV mandate is impractical as a threshold matter. EVs quite simply are not able to replace ICE vehicles for all needs, and for the economy as a whole EVs are an inferior option. Now perhaps the idea is that some people will have to give up some of those needs in order to achieve EV nirvana. Some environmentalists are frank and open about such a desire, the “degrowth” movement for example. But are Californians really on board with that? The way that elected officials pretend that EVs are all gain and no pain suggests they know better.

To start, while homes with garages might be able to easily install a charger for an EV, not everyone lives in a home with a garage. But those folks would count themselves lucky to have to pay for their own charger installation, apartment-, condo- and townhome-dwellers face the problem of having to rely on public charging infrastructure. And more mandates are hardly a solution, the cost of trying to retrofit every apartment building with charging stations would be astronomical. 

Public charging infrastructure is notoriously decrepit, just look at the genre of news articles where the correspondent documents a long-distance EV journey, only to discover many of the EV charging stations marked on maps are non-functional upon arrival. Going for a drive becomes an exercise in planning not what locations to visit, but where the vehicle can be charged. The number of charging terminals is also a major question: while six to 12 gas pumps can serve many thousands of customers a day, because charging terminals must be occupied for an extended period, far more terminals are needed to serve a comparable number of cars.

Massively increasing electricity demand for charging EVs is also a major problem for the electricity grid, especially for California where blackouts are already becoming a regular and expected occurrence, but also for most other states where politicians may have done less preexisting damage to their grids. As mentioned in a previous section, billions of dollars’ worth of new transmission and generation capacity is needed to meet this increase in demand. This need is made even more difficult because the electricity demand will be happening in new locations and at unplanned-for levels: for example, a rural gas station which now only requires enough electricity to run its lights and appliances will require major connection upgrades to support charging infrastructure. And those upgrades aren’t just at the station itself, but all along the extended rural lines that reach out to it. This is more than a matter of cost; transmission lines are unsightly and usually opposed by affected landowners. California also believes it can meet this new demand solely through wind and solar power, which both likewise have major land use impacts. Even with unlimited money, it is not at all clear that a democratic society can build out the vast expansion of grid infrastructure needed to support EVs purely as a practical matter of land use.

There are many conditions and uses where EVs are inferior to ICE vehicles. The above-mentioned blackout conditions are one: people can’t get to work if they are prevented from charging their vehicles. Natural disasters are another example: if there is a wildfire, you need to pack up the family and go, you don’t have time for the car to charge up (and that’s assuming the fire hasn’t already knocked out your power. A person who drives for a living can scarcely afford to be wasting long periods of time recharging during the day. Given all these limitations, the practical use of an EV would be as perhaps one of two cars: an EV for predictable short-haul driving, and an ICE vehicle for emergencies, long road trips, or more unpredictable driving conditions. 

Finally, as a whole, electricity is a hugely impractical basis for a flexible transportation system. Despite conspiratorial thinking among environmentalists and others, liquid hydrocarbon fuels like gasoline and diesel did not become dominant in transportation because of some secret plot or government subsidies. These fuels achieved dominance because they are highly concentrated and energy-dense, efficient, and easy to transport and store. This provides a highly flexible and yet low-cost energy supply in a sector where flexibility and low-cost are required. Electricity is none of those things: unconcentrated and volatile, subject to huge waste in transmission, and difficult to transport and store. Electricity is useful for a fixed location like a factory, or even a railroad line, again in a fixed location, but the more flexibility required, the less reliable electricity becomes by its very nature.

Ultimately, California’s EV mandate exists in an alternate universe, where government can order and the economy and society magically conform. It does not recognize the practical limitations of EVs nor the lived preferences of citizens. In the real world, EVs simply cannot replace ICE vehicles in our modern society, unless as mentioned above the intent is actually to change modern society by limiting citizens’ ability to move about freely. In a free society, plenty of people would choose EVs, because they make sense for certain situations or lifestyles, but there are plenty of situations and lifestyles where EVs are not practical. California can’t centrally plan its way out of that.

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