Electric cars make inroads in California — but fast enough?


May 6, 2018 Updated: May 7, 2018 6:00amA Chevy Bolt all-electric vehicle charges at a dealership in Santa Rosa, which saw a huge jump in sales of plug-in vehicles, along with a rise in demand for cars after the wildfires last fall. Photo: Ramin Rahimian / Special To The Chronicle

California continues to lead the nation in electric car sales.

But it must drive a long, hard road before it can achieve its goal of getting 5 million emissions-free cars on the road 12 years from now.

That’s the message of a new report, which found that while sales of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles last year rose 29 percent over 2016, the state’s total remains under 400,000 — less than 10 percent of the 2030 goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown this year.

The report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit that helped uncover the Volkswagen diesel emissions-cheating scandal, found that especially outside wealthy areas, demand needs to keep growing quickly for California to meet the goal, which is just 12 years away. The group believes it can be done.

“We’re really at just the early stage,” said Nic Lutsey, a program director for the ICCT. “At some point, there’s liftoff in the market. The vehicles will become mainstream and not just hit at a couple niches.”

The top six cities in the state for electric vehicle sales last year, as a proportion of total car sales, were all in Silicon Valley, according to the report. Palo Alto, home to luxury zero-emissions automaker Tesla, led the pack with nearly 30 percent of vehicle purchases skewing electric. Following were Saratoga, Los Altos, Cupertino, Los Gatos and Menlo Park.

The Bay Area had 26 cities among the 30 with electric vehicle shares of new car sales above 10 percent, according to the report.

 Santa Rosa registered the highest percentage increase in demand for electric vehicles among California cities with at least 500 electric vehicles sold. There, the number of new electric vehicles sold in 2017 rose 61 percent from the number of new EVs sold a year earlier. Berkeley and Oakland both saw increases of over 50 percent.

The regional energy company, Sonoma Clean Power, has been partnering with local car dealerships to offer rebates of up to $3,500 on new zero-emission vehicles, on top of state and federal incentives.

“It’s a pretty sweet deal,” said Kate Kelly, with the power company.

About 96,000 electric vehicles were sold in California in 2017, according to the report, and California accounted for half of all EV purchases in the U.S.

The ICCT counts electric vehicles as those that run exclusively on batteries like the Nissan Leaf, as well as plug-in hybrid vehicles like the original Chevrolet Volt, which run on battery-powered engines or gasoline. Hybrids that do not plug in are not counted.

California’s push for electric cars is part of the state’s broader effort to reduce smog and fight global warming. The transportation sector is California’s largest source of heat-trapping gases, accounting for 37 percent of emissions.

Lutsey said that the ongoing battle between California and the Trump administration over fuel-economy standards should have little effect on the state’s push for electric vehicles. Last week California sued the Trump administration over its efforts to weaken or abandon the planned tightening of federal standards, which would force automakers to make their fleets more fuel-efficient.

California has its own regulations, separate from the fuel economy standards, that force automakers to ensure that a percentage of the cars they sell produce no greenhouse gases. Brown issued an executive order in January declaring California’s goal to be 5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2030. Another, earlier executive order requires 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on California roads by 2025 — just seven years away. The state’s definition of zero-emissions vehicles includes plug-in hybrids as well as pure battery electrics; fuel-cell vehicles also count.

An older, used model of the Nissan Leaf, in red, is displayed on the sale lot of the Jim Bone Nissan dealership in Santa Rosa. The city saw a 61 percent increase in sales of plug-in vehicles. Photo: Ramin Rahimian / Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Ramin Rahimian / Special To The Chronicle

An older, used model of the Nissan Leaf, in red, is displayed on the sale lot of the Jim Bone Nissan dealership in Santa Rosa. The city saw a 61 percent increase in sales of plug-in vehicles.
James Sweeney, director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, said there’s too much uncertainty to know if California will meet its electric vehicle targets.

Big unknowns include how much car batteries will improve, how widespread charging stations become and whether governments will need to — and can afford to — continue offering subsidies as electric vehicle sales grow.

“Yes, it will be challenging for the state,” he said, “but not impossible.”

Electric cars have not been as popular outside the Bay Area and Los Angeles County. In Sacramento, Bakersfield and Riverside, for example, emission-free vehicles sales were about 2.5 percent of total sales, or half the state average, according to the ICCT.

Cost is a factor. With a typical starting price of at least $30,000 and often much more, electric cars are generally more expensive than conventional vehicles. People who drive long distances may balk at the range limitations, though improvements in battery technology continue, and some newer models like the Chevrolet Bolt and various Teslas can go more than 200 miles.

“I think it’s natural that electric vehicles end up in certain pockets early on,” said Lutsey, who noted that awareness of electric cars and the number of offerings at local auto dealerships can also be factors. “But sales will migrate to more rural communities.”

Only a third of electric vehicles were sold in places where median income was below the state average, according to the report.

With the right blend of new technology and government support, Lutsey figures California can increase electric vehicle sales by at least 18 percent a year — enough to reach the 5 million goal.

To do so, the ICCT recommends extending many of the same programs that helped popularize electric cars in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to other parts of the state. These include: adding more charging stations and offering consumers incentives such as income-based rebates on purchases and more high-occupancy-vehicle lane privileges (though this is increasingly controversial — for example, Los Angeles last month decided to stop allowing solo drivers of clean cars to use HOV lanes for free on some freeways).

The state must continue investing in the electric vehicle programs, the ICCT says, with much of the funding expected to come from California’s cap-and-trade policy, which requires industrial companies to pay to pollute. And it will need to continue strict regulation of the auto market.

In Santa Rosa, car demand has risen since the wildfires last fall. Todd Barnes, owner of the Platinum Chevrolet dealership, said that government incentives, improvements to electric cars such as greater range, and the availability of charging stations have helped make the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt his top-selling sedan.

“It’s a major contributor to our overall volume,” he said.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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