California Leading the Charge on Electric Vehicles

This is a truly historic moment. While electric cars have come and gone from the American marketplace over the last 50 years, the Nissan Leaf marks the moment of the first affordable, mass produced, globally distributed, lithium ion batteries powered, plug-in electric car. And they’re not alone.

As I said in my last post, the L.A. Auto Show made one thing clear: electric vehicles have arrived en masse. Despite what automakers said for years – that electric cars were too expensive, too difficult and too undesirable – each major American car manufacturer (with exception to Chrysler) is rolling out an electric vehicle. The stage is set for mass adoption of these electric vehicles by the American public. The question is, now that the auto manufacturers have built it, will they – American consumers – come? It is up to the early market adopters, especially California, to make the case.

The delivery of the LEAF on Saturday marks the beginning of what will be a flood of electric vehicle models. Next up is the Chevy Volt plug in hybrid. Then over the next two years, between eleven and eighteen plug in electric vehicle models will hit the market (this site has most of the models listed), including from all almost all the major automakers (Ford Focus electric, Ford Transit Connect van, Honda Fit EV, and Honda plug-in hybrid, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Toyota Prius Plug-in, Toyota RAV4 EV) as well as new entrants (Coda, Fisker Karma, Tesla Model S, Th!nk City).

Over the next year, 30,000 Nissan LEAFs and Chevrolet Volts are forecasted to be sold in the US. California, as the largest auto market with the most consumer interest in green cars, expects to grab more than its proportionate share of these sales, up to 1 million electric vehicles by 2020. SoCal Edison alone expects to be charging 100,000 by 2015.

Where the EV market heads after this Saturday’s delivery may be determined by how smooth the next two years of EV rollout goes. Will the grid be ready to handle these vehicles charging up? Will consumers embrace these cars?

The challenge over the next two years will be less about sufficient demand (the Nissan LEAF’s 20,000 2011 production run is already sold out) but whether the consumer experience will be positive, including home charger installation, avoiding problems with the grid, etc.. You can only have one first impression – and that first impression has to be one of preparedness, speed and ease. For Americans, their first impression of plug-in electric vehicles will begin in California on Saturday, and unfold over the coming weeks.

Fortunately in California, there is still a wealth of experience from the late 1990s during the state’s previous attempt to launch EV’s (including myself). There are many reasons why many of us believe the second time is a charm: better batteries (lithium ion vs lead acid), higher gasoline prices (currently about $3.20/gallon versus about $1.17 this time in 1996 when the GM EV1 was launched), and more stringent fuel economy and CO2 standards (in 1996 average fuel economy was stagnate and falling at 24.8 mpg and now fuel economy standards are rising to 34.1 mpg by 2016).

Finally, in California, all the key stakeholders – utilities, automakers, electric charging station providers, regulators and environmentalist (including NRDC)– have developed a strategic plan to ensure the necessary market coordination occurs. This includes making sure the utilities are fully prepared to handle an electric car, by encouraging charging off-peak, especially at home, and that local transformers are upgraded if necessary.

All the pieces are in place for a successful electric vehicle launch. At this point, one thing is likely: As California goes, so goes the nation. Whether California succeeds or not in the next two years will have a big impact on our ability to cut global warming pollution, break our addiction to oil and building a clean energy economy.

Roland Hwang, Transportation Program Director, San Francisco, Natural Resources Defense Council,