October 07, 2015 Categories: California Clean Energy Climate Change Low-Carbon Fuel

Clean Transportation’s Hidden Win in SB 350


Sustainable transportation advocates have been locked in a pitched battle over the future of California’s mobility for the last several months. The Governor just signed SB 350 (De León) which, by 2030, will increase the fraction of renewable electricity the state uses to 50% and double energy efficiency improvements in buildings[1]. A third provision, to cut petroleum consumption in half was dropped after a punishing legislative session and literally millions of dollars of negative, and unfounded oil company advertising, the petroleum component of SB 350 was dropped.

A commitment to move one of the world’s largest economies onto 50% renewable energy[2] is a major victory. Increasing the energy-efficiency of buildings is also worthy of celebration. Losing the oil component seems like a missed opportunity for the climate, consumers and public health, but that remains to be seen since Governor Brown vowed to move forward with a robust slate of petroleum reduction policies using his executive authority; as he put it: “my zeal is intensified to the maximum degree.” Amidst the debate over the headline oil reduction section of SB 350, a provision in the renewable energy section supporting electric vehicles flew under the radar and survived the oil company assault. This provision, Section 32 for those who like reading bill text, has promising and potentially far-reaching implications for the future of transportation in California.

Charging Ahead

California is already a world leader at deploying electric vehicles. The Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program was the first major policy to create a market for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. In 2014, Senator (now Senate President Pro-Tem) Kevin de León successfully passed SB 1275, the Charge Ahead initiative, which directed the state to bring one million electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles onto the road by 2022 and to create incentive programs to ensure that low-income families could afford them. These ZEVs would not only reduce air pollutant emissions and the state’s dependence on petroleum, but also save consumers money; electric engines are more efficient at turning energy into motion than gasoline engines and electricity is cheaper in the U.S. than gasoline, per unit of energy.

This sounds great for both consumers and the climate, but the transition from gasoline to electricity does not come without challenges. Ensuring that there are convenient recharging stations is a key step in the electric vehicle transition. Most people who own their homes as well as residents of some apartment complexes can plug in at night, but others may not have this option. Charging during the day is, in some cases, a superior option to night (more on this in a moment), but it requires that chargers be installed where ZEVs are likely to be during the day, like workplaces and shopping centers.

This creates a chicken-and-egg problem: prospective electric vehicle owners may worry that they can’t charge their ZEV enough to enjoy the benefits, while potential developers or owners of chargers worry that if they install a charger, there won’t be enough demand to justify the expense. A few companies have started trying to develop a business model around providing chargers in public places, and electric utilities are trying to get in on the action as well, but the process has been slow.

Cracking the Egg

Here’s where SB 350 comes in: a provision in the bill (first discussed by NRDC’s Max Baumhefner and expounded upon by Dan Morain and Steven Maviglio) requires the agencies in charge of energy in California – the Air Resources Board, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Energy Commission – to develop a plan for providing electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the state. Most critically, the Public Utilities Commission will direct utilities to create plans to:

“achieve the goals set forth in the Charge Ahead California Initiative… and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.”

That line is a big win for sustainable transportation for three reasons:

  • First, even though it doesn’t directly cut petroleum or reduce greenhouse gases, it clearly indicates the legislature’s intent to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals laid out by previous executive orders[3]. Transportation accounts for around 37% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions and there is no way to achieve these climate goals without transportation doing its share, which means slashing petroleum consumption. The words may not say “cut petroleum consumption” but the implication is crystal-clear: the legislature intends for the state to burn a lot less oil in the future.
  • Second, unless you believe the most wildly optimistic projections of advanced biofuel commercialization[4], there’s no way to achieve either of the executive order GHG targets without significant penetration of electric vehicles. So, SB 350 tells the entities responsible for all things energy that there will be a lot of electric vehicles coming, and the state needs to be ready for them.
  • Third, electric vehicle charging infrastructure spans multiple policy domains overseen by several different State agencies. This regulatory overlap led to confusion and delay as the agencies tried to determine how best to plan for the future without overstepping their authority or mandate. This puts one agency, the Public Utilities Commission in the lead, authorizes development of far-reaching plans and gives them an emphatic push in the right direction with the security of knowing that the Governor and Legislature support their efforts.

This cracks the chicken-and-egg problem of vehicles vs. infrastructure. While we cannot expect California’s regulators or utilities to jump to precipitous action on charging deployment, SB 350 creates a clear target for charging infrastructure and requires the various agencies to collaboratively develop a transparent plan on how to get there. Businesses, consumers, and automakers will know what to expect and can start working to get vehicles on the road, confident that there will be a robust network of charging infrastructure to support them. Requiring charging infrastructure is not, by itself, sufficient to break gasoline’s near-monopoly over personal transportation, but it’s probably necessary to do so.

Removing the lack of charging infrastructure as a potential roadblock unlocks the transformative potential of an electric vehicles, which has been written about by many authors, including myself. I want to highlight two key ways in which the broad, multi-agency planning and coordination effort launched by SB 350 will be crucial. First, it will almost certainly improve the provision of public charging infrastructure, which is most often used in the daytime, when people are most active and when solar panels are generating the most power. Matching the supply (solar) to demand (ZEVs at public chargers) helps electrical grid operators ensure a stable and reliable electricity sstem. Second, the clear directive towards interagency cooperation will likely facilitate the deployment of “smart” chargers which communicate with the grid to schedule vehicle charging to avoid exacerbating imbalances between the supply and demand of electricity; such as delaying overnight charging until after the evening demand peak.

ISO peakchart

Average net demand (total demand minus renewable supply) on the CA electricity grid. Public charging options and Smart Chargers can help ensure that most ZEV charging avoids peak demand. Souce: California Independent System Operator.

The obstacles impeding public charging stations and smart chargers have been regulatory more than technical. The directive contained in SB 350 will ensure that all parties are working towards the same goal in a coordinated fashion.

As Governor Brown put it in his press conference announcing the withdrawal of the petroleum provisions from SB 350, oil companies may have won that skirmish, but they will lose the war. The ZEV provisions in SB 350 are part of the reason why.



[1] Another crucial climate bill, SB 32 (Pavely), which would have enhanced and extended the California’s landmark climate-change program, advanced most of the way through the legislature and will seek final passage next year.

[2] Not counting large hydroelectric or nuclear facilities.

[3] Specifically, S-03-05 (Schwarzenegger) and B-30-15 (Brown).

[4] And for the record, I am a biofuel expert, and I don’t. Biofuels will be a critical contributor, but probably not the dominant fuel for passenger vehicles.

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