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New cars in California must be zero-emissions by 2035. Can the power grid handle it?

: [EDITOR'S NOTE: The statement in this story that “to power all those vehicles the state will need to triple the amount of electricity that’s currently produced” needs clarification. It mischaracterized what the California Energy Commission said in a 2021 report. That report stated that California will need to “roughly triple” it’s “electricity power capacity” in order to meet a key climate goal – 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Capacity in this case is not the same as the amount of overall electricity produced. It’s just the ability to make electricity – as in, how much you could make all at once if you needed to.]

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

California has some of the most ambitious climate goals in the country. And the state is pushing hard to eliminate as many gas-powered vehicles from its roads as quickly as possible. One key goal - that all new cars and light trucks sold in the state be electric by 2035. That's the mandate set out by the California Air Resources Board last year, and it could mean 12 million more EVs on California's roads. Nadia Lopez is an environment reporter with CalMatters, a partner in our California hub newsroom. She's reported recently on the challenges that the state is facing as it tries to reach its climate goals and joins us now. Welcome.

NADIA LOPEZ: Hi. It's great to be here.

CHANG: Great to have you. OK. So first, tell us about the rule I just mentioned, this mandate that all new cars and light trucks sold in the state by 2035 be electric. What is California actively doing to make that happen?

LOPEZ: As part of the 2035 electric car mandate, car companies basically need to gradually electrify their fleet of new vehicles. So beginning with 2026 models, that means 35% of all new vehicles sold have to be electric. That increases to 68% by 2030, until finally reaching 100% in 2035. So to prepare, the state is investing in a lot of clean energy projects, more public charging stations and transmission line upgrades and that buildout. To put it in perspective, California will need 1.2 million chargers to support this transition.

CHANG: Wow.

LOPEZ: We have about 80,000.

CHANG: Oh. OK. There's a long way to go. Well, even if we do end up building all those new charging stations, I mean, you basically raised the one, big question still is, where will the electricity come from for all of those charging stations, all of those millions of new electric vehicles? Because I have to say, as a California resident, I'm honestly wondering that, too. I remember, like, during last summer's heat waves, we were all asked to use really limited amounts of electricity during peak hours to avoid blackouts. So can the state's power grid actually supply what will be needed?

LOPEZ: So to power all these vehicles, the state will need to triple the amount of electricity that's currently produced. That means deploying new clean energy projects. That means upgrading and building new transmission lines to deliver power. But also it means encouraging residents to charge their cars during times of the day when energy demand is the lowest to avoid the potential strain on the grid.

CHANG: OK. So we're talking about triple the amount of electricity supply, right? Can you just, like, talk more about that? Like, what kind of clean energy projects will be needed to support this whole transition to millions more electric vehicles?

LOPEZ: So clean energy projects include large-scale solar projects, new wind farms and also developing a brand-new industry that currently doesn't exist. It's promising and could supply tons of energy within the next 12 to 20 years, but offshore wind development is super ambitious, and so far, no projects exist.

CHANG: So what happens if California can't meet its goals in the various years it wants to meet their goals?

LOPEZ: A lot is at stake when it comes to California meeting its clean energy goals. Cleaning up its air pollution could also be a big problem. It could continue to burden many low-income and disadvantaged communities. Apart from that, you know, ramping up clean energy, we're facing the closure of our natural gas plants and our last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, which is supposed to shut down in 2030. If we can't source enough of our energy from renewables by that point, then there's also the risk that the state will have to consider extending operations at those facilities.

CHANG: That was environment reporter Nadia Lopez with CalMatters, a partner of our California hub newsroom. Thank you so much, Nadia.

LOPEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
William Troop
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.