California Charges Ahead on the Road to Electric Car Ubiquity

Man charging electric car on street
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Over the last year, as Congress has dithered over the college tuition crisis, it has become increasingly clear that solutions to high education costs will come from state governments like Oregon and Delaware, not Washington, D.C. But education is only one of many problems facing the country. For another one -- high gas prices -- the solution may come from California.

For years, gas prices have fluctuated wildly, ranging from relatively-bearable lows to budget-busting highs. The wider adoption of one increasingly popular solution, electric vehicles, has been severely hampered by a few key factors: high sticker prices, expensive batteries, and a limited number of charging stations. The first two problems are linked, and largely technical issues: The batteries for an electric car currently cost $12,000 or more, which keeps their retail prices high. Analysts predict that prices will drop by half within the next seven years -- a prediction that is promising, but not all that useful right now.

And then there's the charging station issue. Currently, the number of stations in each state ranges wildly, from Wyoming, which has one, to California, which has 1,417. Given that charging stations are a prerequisite for electric vehicles, it's not surprising that the Golden State currently leads the country in electric cars, while Big Wyoming ... doesn't.

However, Californians aren't resting on their laurels: A law recently by the Palo Alto city council requires that every new home must be electric car compatible. On the surface, this isn't all that impressive: After all, electric chargers hook into a simple 220-volt line, which is basically the same kind of outlet that a clothes washer uses. The added cost to install one in the garage of a home under construction is about $200; on the other hand, the cost of retrofitting a house to install one later would run you about five times as much.

On a broader scale, however, the cost and impacts of the new law are less important than what it signifies: an expectation that electric cars are here to stay. And it's only one of several programs that California has enacted to encourage electric vehicles. As Wired recently noted, the state is laying the groundwork to include charging platforms in the parking areas of apartment houses and commercial buildings, setting up initiatives to encourage low-income drivers to trade in their gas cars, and allowing EV drivers to use carpool lanes, regardless of the number of passengers. And all of this is aimed at a definite end goal: By 2025, California hopes to have 1.5 million EVs on the road.

EVs aren't the state's only nod toward sustainable energy; it has also become a leader in biogas. Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE), which is making the first commercially-available renewable natural gas vehicle fuel, is doing so in California. The fuel, named Redeem, is distilled from landfill gas and, according to the company, can lead to a 90 percent reduction in emissions when it is used to replace diesel or gasoline. This year, Clean Energy Fuels plans to have 35 stations in California, with a longer term goal of expanding to 400 across the country.

When it comes to sustainable fuels in America, a new day is indeed dawning -- but this time, the sun is coming up in the West.