by Julia Pyper
May 24, 2019

The 100 percent clean electricity target is the latest trend in clean energy policymaking. As of today, five states — plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and 120 cities — have committed to 100 percent goals, while several others are considering it.

But while the ink has barely dried on Washington state’s clean electricity bill, recent headlines suggest there is a new trend on the horizon: 100 percent zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, targets.

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential hopeful Jay Inslee released the first part of his comprehensive climate plan, which includes a requirement to reach 100 percent zero emissions in new light-duty and medium-duty vehicles, as well as all buses, by 2030. That is a wildly ambitious policy proposal and a long shot at best.

But the idea has garnered a fair number of headlines and advanced the conversation around a national ZEV target.

In a similar vein, California Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2019 this month in the U.S. House and Senate, respectively. The bill would require 50 percent of all new car sales to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030, increasing 5 percent per year until 2040, when all new passenger cars sold in the U.S. would be battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Automakers that fail to hit the targets would face civil penalties under the proposal. Co-sponsors of the bill include presidential contenders Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

“This legislation embraces the opportunity for America to sell to the world the revolutionary technology that will make our air cleaner, communities healthier, and workforce stronger,” said Sen. Merkley, in a statement.

Rep. Levin said that the bold measure reflects the severity of the climate crisis, but acknowledged in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune that the bill is a long shot while Republicans control the Senate and the White House.

“My great hope is that we’re laying a foundation…that we have a road map,” he said.

While the ZEV Act sets up a policy discussion at the federal level, the groundwork was arguably laid much earlier at the state and local level. Other countries have also already taken steps to mandate more ZEVs or, in a similar vein, phase out cars with internal combustion engines.

This week’s column takes a look at where 100 percent ZEV goals are gaining traction.

California threatens a ban on gas-powered vehicles

ZEV mandates aren’t anything new. Just like clean energy mandates, they’ve been around in one form or another for years.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted its first ZEV requirement back in 1990 as part of the Low Emission Vehicle regulation. The rules were modified in 2012 under the Advanced Clean Cars Program, which requires auto manufacturers to produce a number of ZEVs and plug-in hybrids each year based on the total number of cars a manufacturer sells in California. Compliance is tracked based on percent credits, ranging from 4.5 percent in 2018 to 22 percent by 2025.

Each vehicle receives credits based on its electric driving range, which makes it difficult to predict how many new ZEVs will result from the regulation. But according to CARB, estimates show that about 8 percent of California new vehicle sales in 2025 will be ZEVs and plug-in hybrids.

That’s a long way off from 100 percent, but it’s headed in that direction. Plus, California may not be done with setting rules.

Earlier this month, CARB Chair Mary Nichols said the state would be forced to pursue “extreme” requirements — including a potential ban on fossil-fuel-burning vehicles — to address an uptick in pollution if the Trump administration weakens current federal vehicle emission and fuel economy standards.

“CARB will be exploring ways to ensure communities get the reductions of air pollution they so desperately need to keep the air clean and breathable — and continue to fight climate change,” Nichols said in drafted remarks for a recent event, Bloomberg reported. “That might mean...an outright ban on internal combustion engines.”

A good chunk of Southern California is already headed in that direction. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled the city’s updated sustainability plan last month, which aims to increase the percentage of electric and zero-emission vehicles in L.A. to 25 percent by 2025, 80 percent by 2035, and 100 percent by 2050.

The plan also sets a target for traditional taxis to go all-electric by 2028, and for all school buses, trash and recycling trucks to be zero emissions by the same year.

The vehicle segment is crucial in discussing the concept of 100 percent ZEVs, said Nick Nigro, founder of transportation research firm Atlas Public Policy. “If it’s a segment of the transportation sector that’s controlled essentially by the city, like the mass transit agency, I think, yes, 100 percent ZEV is a new way to measure climate progress,” he said.

“If we’re talking about individual passenger vehicles, which is obviously a very different and more complex problem, I think that you need state policy to guide that if you don’t have federal policy,” he added.

Municipal level policy may not be the right venue to regulate privately owned vehicles because so many of the vehicles that operate in the city on a given day may not originate from there, according to Nigro. One notable exception is the electrification of shared vehicles, like those used by Uber and Lyft.

“Pushing the electrification of transportation network companies is a laudable goal for cities, and they have a role to play,” he said.

Colorado contemplates a ZEV mandate

In addition to California, nine other states currently require that a certain percentage of new vehicles sold within the state be zero-emissions vehicles. These are the "Section 177" states because they’re able to adopt California’s vehicle standards through Section 177 of the Clean Air Act.

The current list of states includes: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Together with California, these states represent nearly 30 percent of new car sales in the U.S.

Colorado is the latest state to consider implementing a ZEV mandate. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission recently decided to return in August to vote on whether or not the state should require auto manufacturers to make electric vehicles make up nearly 5 percent of their vehicles for sale in Colorado by 2023, with higher rates in the years to come.

While the ZEV rule is advancing, it’s highly controversial and has several hurdles to overcome. Colorado’s proposal is also well off of a 100 percent ZEV requirement, showing just how far this concept has to come.

States are hesitant to approve strict ZEV mandates or ICE restrictions because of the backlash from oil companies and automakers. There’s still a lot of consumer education to be done around how electric and fuel cell vehicles work, and where and how to fuel them up. Plus, there are still a relatively limited number of ZEV options available — especially outside of California.

Automakers are hoping to avoid a ZEV rule in Colorado by offering to make all of the EV models they sell in California available in the Centennial State. But given that a mandate would also increase the number of ZEV models, the state’s Energy Office seems inclined to advance the rulemaking process.

Whether or not there’s enough political will to ultimately get a ZEV target passed in Colorado — at a time when the Trump administration is looking to roll back clean vehicle standards — remains to be seen.

The Canadian province of British Columbia might have just enough political will, however.

British Columbia considers 100% ZEVs by 2040

In April, B.C. Energy Minister Michelle Mungall introduced legislation — The Zero Emission Vehicle Act — that would require all light-duty cars and trucks sold in the province to be ZEV by 2040.

If passed, the bill would set a 10 percent ZEV sales target for 2025 and a 2030 percent ZEV sales target for 2030, before jumping to 100 percent in 2040.

The mandate would apply only to new cars, trucks and SUVs, while heavy-duty vehicles, like the Ford F250, buses, transport trucks, motorcycles and medium-duty delivery vans, would be exempt. Used gas-powered vehicles could also be sold at dealerships.

Traditional hybrid cars would not qualify as ZEVs, but plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-powered vehicles would. To promote ZEV adoption, the plan includes an incentive of up to $5,000 on a new battery electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, and up to $6,000 for a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

“This legislation will help ensure supply keeps up with demand, making it easier for people to go electric, while helping B.C. cut carbon pollution and combat climate change,” said Dan Woynillowicz, policy director at Clean Energy Canada. “If you want an electric car, you should be able to drive one home from the lot, same as any car. That’s what this policy is about.”

Automaker compliance under the ZEV Act is tracked based on credits, similar to California, where manufacturers are rewarded for offering lower-emission and longer-range vehicles. Companies that fail to comply would face fines.

B.C. Premier John Horgan first introduced the proposal last fall. His administration hopes to implement the plan starting with model year 2020 vehicles, but is reportedly still consulting with industry and still needs the legislation to pass.

The catch with ZEV goals

While the U.S. is just starting to grapple with the concept of a 100 percent ZEV target, several other countries have already acted to phase out internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, there are currently 14 ICE vehicle phaseout targets at the national level and 29 at the municipal or regional level.

But these goals are lofty. What’s more, they’re just goals. None of the 14 countries has passed a law prohibiting gas-powered cars.

Photo: Seb Henbest/Twitter

“There is literally not a single ban on the books in regulatory language that is enforceable in any auto market in the world,” Nic Lutsey, director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, told Quartz last year.

According to Nigro, while banning ICE vehicles at the national level sounds compelling, the reality is that the technology progress and affordability remain viable concerns.

“I think there can be incentives for electrification and technology features of the vehicle like the drivetrain and such,” he said. “But I think it’s difficult to imagine a really aggressive 100 percent zero-emission vehicle mandate.”

Check out this thread to see how #EnergyTwitter reacted to the rise of 100 percent ZEV targets.