Will California’s transformation to electric vehicles work?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Sameea Kamal BY Sameea Kamal January 17, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Southern California Gas Company

Will California’s transformation to electric vehicles work?

To battle climate change and clean up its severe air pollution, California enacted a historic mandate to replace gasoline cars with zero-emission vehicles within 12 years. But can the transition really happen as quickly as the state requires? And what will it mean for Californians and their economy?

Today, CalMatters launches “Race to Zero: California’s bumpy road to electrify cars and trucks” — a series that delves into the challenges the state faces in electrifying its fleet. 

In today’s story, environmental reporter Nadia Lopez analyzes whether the state’s power grid can handle the 12.5 million cars expected on California’s roads. Nadia discovered that the state’s confidence that the grid can handle the load is based on a series of assumptions that may be unrealistic: Powering the vehicles means California must triple the amount of electricity produced and deploy new solar and wind energy at almost five times the pace of the past decade. And it means people must charge their cars in off-peak daytime or late-night hours, which isn’t always practical.

  • Assemblymember Vince Fong, a Bakersfield Republican: “You’ve got an electricity grid that is leaning on customers to do more, instead of, actually, as a state, generating the power we need to keep the lights on.”
  • David Victor, a professor and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at UC San Diego: “We’re going to have to expand the grid at a radically much faster rate. This is plausible if the right policies are in place, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s best-case.”

The Air Resources Board enacted the electric car mandate last August during a blistering heat wave that triggered an unprecedented, 10-day emergency warning to cut power use or face outages. The juxtaposition stoked widespread doubts that California’s grid will be ready to withstand the all-electric future. At the same time, the state is shifting all of its electricity to clean sources of power. 

Energy experts and environmental activists say the goals are achievable — but only if the Newsom administration acts now to come up with a strategy to ramp up solar and wind farms.

  • Sascha von Meier, a retired UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor who specializes in power grids: “We are not yet on track. If we just take a laissez-faire approach with the market, then we will not get there…Planning and permitting is very urgent.”

CalMatters covers the Legislature: With the state Legislature back in session, CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.   


1 A billion-dollar disaster

People cross a flooded street as they check out of a hotel in San Diego on Jan. 16, 2023. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters
People cross a flooded street as they check out of a hotel in San Diego on Jan. 16, 2023. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

After Monday’s rains — part of the ninth atmospheric river to swamp California since Christmas — the state is forecast to have a chance to dry out later this week.

But death and destruction has already come — at least 20 lives lost (with only extreme rescue efforts preventing more) and what could add up to $1 billion or more in damage to property, roads and other infrastructure.  

Late Monday, the White House announced that President Biden plans to see the devastation for himself on Thursday on the Central Coast. He also plans to talk to first responders and local officials and assess what additional federal support is needed, as state and federal agencies are trying to help Californians start the long slog of a cleanup. Earlier Monday, Newsom signed an executive order to ramp up support for communities, the latest in a series of emergency measures that give access to different relief measures. 

  • The major disaster declaration approved by the White House late Saturday provides grants and loans for temporary housing and home repairs to residents flooded in Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties, plus public assistance to local governments for emergency response, recovery costs and hazard mitigation. The list of eligible counties could grow. To check if you live in one of the impacted areas, and apply for assistance, go here or call 1 (800) 621-3362.
  • An earlier emergency declaration by the White House authorizes federal agencies to coordinate and provide funding and equipment for relief efforts. So far, it covers 31 counties.
  • Californians will also get some tax relief: Both the state Franchise Tax Board and Internal Revenue Service extended the deadline for individuals and businesses in impacted counties to file tax returns from April 18 to May 15, and also announced that residents in impacted areas could claim a disaster tax credit.

With damages statewide already estimated at upwards of $1 billion, it would be the first billion-dollar disaster of 2023, a stat tracked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

In 2022, there were 18 such disasters in the U.S. — the third most since 1980 — including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and droughts (the latter two covering California) totaling $165 billion in damage and 474 deaths.

Yet, even with a year’s worth of rain in a few weeks in some places, the storms aren’t expected to end California’s drought. But two reservoirs in California are employing a new technique — forecast-informed operations — that could reshape how water is stored across the West, Capital Public Radio reports.

The state has also fast-tracked a pilot project to capture more flood waters for underground storage. It allows multiple landowners to divert excess water from Mariposa creek near the City of Merced to recharge a key groundwater basin. 

  • The California Department of Water Resources on the Merced Project permit: It is “expected to pave the way for future projects to allow water from wet-weather storms to be captured and diverted.” 

But the state’s long-standing challenges remain. 94% of the water that has flowed since New Year’s Eve through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has continued straight to the Pacific Ocean due to environmental protections for the endangered Delta smelt, the Mercury News reports.  

  • Jim Houston, administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation: “It’s like winning the lottery and blowing it all in Vegas. You have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.”

2 More budget cuts needed, LAO says

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his budget proposal for the 2023-24 fiscal year during a press briefing at the California Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils his budget proposal for the 2023-24 fiscal year during a press briefing at the California Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

The electric vehicle transformation is happening at the same time as politicians and leading policy groups battle over the governor’s proposed cuts to climate change spending — a casualty of the projected budget deficit.

Newsom proposed cutting the five-year $54 billion climate package approved by the Legislature during last year’s session to $48 billion

For some environmental advocates, the possible cuts rub salt on the wound after Newsom took a lead role in the efforts to oppose Proposition 30, which would have taxed the wealthy to create a funding stream for electric vehicles but went down to defeat in November.

In its initial overall review of Newsom’s spending plan, the Legislative Analyst’s Office called the governor’s approach prudent — including his call to avoid dipping into the state’s reserves — but cautioned that additional cuts to one-time and temporary spending will likely be needed to balance the 2023-24 budget before final approval in June. 

That’s despite the analyst’s recalibration of the expected deficit, which it estimates at $18 billion — less than the $24 billion the LAO projected in November, and the $22.5 billion projected by the governor’s office

Advocates for the poor say the budget could do more to protect working families by trimming tax breaks benefiting the wealthy and corporations. We also reported last week on a list of some of the stakeholders who raised concerns with the proposal. Two days later, the governor’s office put out a press release with its own list of what legislators and groups are saying. (No surprise — you may not see a lot of overlap).  

In other Capitol news: California’s much-anticipated fast food council that would set pay and working standards for employees is on pause. 

The landmark law was supposed to go into effect temporarily on Jan. 1, while the fast food industry pursues a referendum on the 2024 ballot. (The signature verification process is set to be complete later this month).

But on Friday, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge blocked the law, ruling in favor of the industry coalition by concluding that allowing the law to temporarily go into effect would undermine the referendum process and cause confusion. 

3 UC’s grad student housing problem

Primero Grove student housing complex at UC Davis in Davis on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Primero Grove student housing complex at UC Davis in Davis on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

If you’re a graduate student seeking on-campus housing at the University of California, good luck. Graduate workers scored some wins on benefits after the historic six-week-long strike that ended last month, but housing relief wasn’t one of them.

Graduate students make up 21% of UC students, but only 15% of the housing stock is for them. At UC Merced, for example, there are just nine beds for graduate students, CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn points out. 

And while not all graduate students want to live on campus, there is a demand: Last fall’s UC campus housing waitlist had 5,500 graduate students and 8,500 undergraduate students. 

Gerry Bomotti, vice chancellor of planning, budget and administration at UC Riverside, told CalMatters that the distribution makes sense since the campus housing experience prioritizes the undergraduate campus housing experience.

Leading California lawmakers on higher education state spending offered mixed responses when asked by CalMatters if they’d consider requiring a minimum amount of the new housing grant and loan programs to fund beds for graduate students. This year, that would mean trying to do so with a projected multi-billion dollar deficit.

A demand to include more campus housing and rental subsidies to graduate students was yanked from last year’s contract negotiations. But that doesn’t mean the debate is over: Some graduate students who opposed the agreement said they think housing will be another flashpoint when negotiations for a new deal begin, likely in late 2024. 


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Gov. Gavin Newsom knows that the public’s patience on homelessness is wearing thin and is squabbling with local officials over what to do.

How California can prepare for future floods before a megastorm hits: Larger floods in the future require greater investment in flood preparation, insurance and evacuation planning, argues Gerald Meral, director of the California Water Program at the Natural Heritage Institute

Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Barbara Lee has far less money than other U.S. Senate candidates. Here’s why you shouldn’t count her out // San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Tubbs, advisor to the governor, chronicles agony, anger and hope on a poverty tour of California // Los Angeles Times 

Newsom’s CARE Court gets a head start? L.A. County is on track to join a year early // Los Angeles Times

S.F.’s largest landlord defaults on massive loan. What it means for the future of city’s real estate? // San Francisco Chronicle

Drone captures scene where Riverside County deputy killed // Los Angeles Times

Clemency probe fails to exonerate Kevin Cooper in quadruple Chino Hills murders // Orange County Register

Newly released body camera footage shows LAPD tasing Keenan Anderson // NPR

Experts say California should ban this type of police stop. Why haven’t lawmakers done it? // San Francisco Chronicle

Six dead, including teen mom and infant, in believed gang-related shooting // Fox News

Opinion: California refuses to fix CEQA. Here’s how Newsom can take charge // San Francisco Chronicle

Anxiety over ‘tripledemic’ has these LAUSD parents pleading for mask mandate // Los Angeles Times 

See you tomorrow


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