California May Soon Pay You To Convert Your Car To An EV And I Hope The Federal Government Follows Suit

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California Assembly Bill 2350, titled “Vehicular air pollution: Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project” is on a mission to extend government incentives normally offered to those who buy new electric cars to those who convert their vehicles from gas to electric, or who buy a vehicle that has already been converted. It’s actually totally logical; let’s dig into this proposed bill.

I visited legendary electric vehicle conversion company EV West a few weeks back (I’ll have a story on that soon), and while giving me a tour of his incredible facility, the boss, Michael Bream, told me about some bill SEMA was working on related to EV conversions. SEMA, of course, stands for Specialty Equipment Market Association. It’s a trade association of companies (including EV West) involved in the automotive aftermarket, and it’s probably best known for its annual SEMA show in Las Vegas — a show that usually features wildly modified vehicles like absurdly-lifted Jeeps and trucks and amazing restomodded old muscle cars.

Michael put me in touch with Christian Robinson, a member of SEMA’s D.C.-based lobbying team. Robinson told me that the 2021 SEMA show had featured quite a few EV conversions, and that the excitement surrounding those conversions had sent the trade association “looking at the laws that were on the books as it relates to EVs, particularly in California.” What SEMA found were plenty of government incentives, but not for EV-converted used cars. “All the programs they’ve got on the books,” Robinson told me, “are for new cars…Why don’t we do something for this segment of the hobby — people that are looking to turn a used car into an EV?”

SEMA got in touch with Tim Grayson, who represents the San Francisco-area’s 14th Assembly District, and who Robinson tells me is a car-nut (he was SEMA’s Legislator of the Year for his work related to California’s strict exhaust sound restrictions a few years back). Grayson’s got quite a big automotive presence in his district; the city of Benicia, for example, is home to Red Line Oil, a SEMA member who is partners with engine tuning company Arrington (who, incidentally, showed a hydrogen-powered 1948 Chevy Truck called “Zero” at SEMA 2021).

Anyway, after chatting with SEMA, Grayson introduced the proposed “Vehicular air pollution: Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project” bill, which you can read here. It is rather short and, per Robinson, really just represents a starting point for EV conversion incentives. Here’s the summary, which essentially describes an addition to the already-existing Clean Vehicle Rebate Project that gives Californians up to $7,000 off their plug-in hybrid, fully-electric, or fuel-cell vehicle (most rebates for the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project appear to be in the $1,000 to $4,500 range). The goal for the proposed “Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion project” is to provide folks with up to $2,000 to help purchase an old car that has been converted into an electric vehicle. From AB-2350:

Existing law directs the State Air Resources Board to coordinate efforts to attain and maintain ambient air quality standards. Existing law creates the Air Quality Improvement Program, administered by the state board, to fund, upon appropriation by the Legislature, air quality improvement projects relating to fuel and vehicle technologies.
[…]
The state board shall establish the Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project (ZACP) and shall allocate up to two million dollars ($2,000,000) annually from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, established as part of the Air Quality Improvement Program established pursuant to Article 3 (commencing with Section 44274), to provide an applicant with a rebate for an eligible vehicle that has been converted into a zero-emission vehicle.

The proposal also mentions that “The state board shall develop guidelines for the program, define qualifying conversion-types for used vehicles, define eligible replacement motors, power systems, and parts, and establish minimum eligibility criteria for an applicant to be eligible for the rebate described in subdivision.”

Here’s a look at some of those guidelines:

(1) An eligible zero-emission vehicle shall have a range of at least 100 miles.
(2) The equivalent of any manufacturer suggested retail price limit established for the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project for a comparable vehicle category shall apply, based on total zero-emission vehicle cost, including the value of the donor vehicle at the time of conversion and the cost of conversion.
(3) Any income limits established for the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project shall apply.
(4) In establishing rebate amounts, the state board shall ensure that the rebate issued for a converted zero-emission vehicle provides cost-effective benefits to the state in reducing air pollution that are equivalent to the benefits to the state in reducing air pollution with respect to the issuance of rebates for new zero-emission vehicles.
(c) A new vehicle frame may be installed on an eligible vehicle so long as it is installed to accommodate a zero-emission vehicle conversion.
(d) A rebate issued pursuant to the Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project shall be limited to one per vehicle and have a value of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).
(e) A minimum of 25 percent of the rebates issued pursuant to the Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project shall be issued to those eligible for the Clean Cars 4 All program, as established in Section 44124.5.
(f) The state board shall coordinate the Zero-Emission Aftermarket Conversion Project with the enhanced fleet modernization program, established pursuant to Article 11 (commencing with Section 44124) of Chapter 5, the Charge Ahead California Initiative, established pursuant to Chapter 8.5 (commencing with Section 44258), and the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, established as part of the Air Quality Improvement Program established pursuant to Article 3 (commencing with Section 44274).

 

A few notes on the above guidelines. Clean Cars 4 All is “program that focuses on providing incentives through California Climate Investments to lower-income California drivers to scrap their older, high-polluting car and replace it with a zero- or near-zero emission replacement,” as the state of California puts it on its website. Also, note that number two relates to the $45,000 maximum MSRP for vehicles to be eligible for the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program (incidentally, Tesla’s recent price hikes mean its cars are now ineligible).

I’ve put the more interesting notes in bold. First, you can install a new frame if you like, which is great, because some of the coolest cars out there are just not quite built on the best bones for an EV conversion. More than anything, this just allows for flexibility, which I like.

The 100 mile minimum range requirement could be a bit problematic. Most people probably live well within 50 miles of work; a vehicle that offers 65 miles of range, for example, could allow someone to ditch the 1990 Ford Explorer they’ve been commuting with for years. Or, better yet, convert it. Perhaps more problematic is the testing; how will the California Air Resources Board determine whether a vehicle meets the 100-mile minimum range requirement? This seems like something that will fall off the bill at some point, and be replaced with something similar like a minimum battery size requirement.

“We see this as logical step in terms of what consumers are going to be looking for,” Robinson told me about SEMA, who is sponsoring this proposed bill. And I tend to agree. The auto industry has been around in the U.S. for well over a century. It has engrained itself into our very psyche; the idea that everyone’s going to drive around in 2012-or-newer cars in the near future is absurd. Americans love old cars — the way they look, the way they feel inside that cabin, the way they ride. As states like California push for mass EV-adoption, they’re essentially pushing for the extinction of old cars, which just doesn’t jibe with many, many Americans. So it’s time to do something about it; it’s time to incentivize EV conversions. I’d like to see something like this on the federal level — an addition to the current program that offers up to $7,500 in credits for new EV purchases,  and something more than just $2,000. Possibly even more than $7,500, as EV conversions are expensive, but they reuse a lot of components, which seems good for the environment. I can see how it’d be a tricky thing to regulate, but you can’t expect people to stop buying their 1966 Ford Mustang to drive a 2020 EV. Yes, we need to preserve the planet, but we’ve got to preserve soul, too.

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55 Responses

  1. The scientific data on climate change are overwhelming. We need to save our planet and do whatever we can to combat climate change. After all, this is the only planet we have, so not killing it – and ourselves in the process – seems like a really good idea. The horrific forest fires on the west coast of the past few years are yet another example of what we will have more of in the future if we don’t do something. Thank the amorphous celestial deities of your choice that the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord.

    But no matter how much some people wish it were true and how often they might say it, and no matter how trendy electric cars are right now, a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) is not on its face necessarily ‘environmentally friendly’. The hard facts are that it primarily depends on how the electricity is generated to charge the EV.

    Electricity is not ‘free’. It doesn’t just come out of a wall socket on its own. Some other primary energy source must be used to generate the electricity. Electricity is a way to transmit and transfer energy. It’s not an ‘energy source’ on its own. Most excitement about BEVs ignores this.

    The fundamental problem is that right now, fossil fuels still provide about 63% of the electricity generated in the US, with nuclear an additional 19%. There are significant regional differences, but overall only about 11% of US electric power is generated from renewable sources:

    https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3

    A BEV makes more sense in a place like Oregon that gets 70% of its electricity from ‘clean’ sources (hydro and wind). For California, wiser minds than mine will have to do the math. The state gets about 33% of its electricity from renewables:

    https://www.energy.ca.gov/data-reports/energy-almanac/california-electricity-data/2020-total-system-electric-generation

    So it makes perfect sense if you’re one of those people who’s electricity from the wall socket comes from renewables, or your own independent photovoltaic solar panels. But not so much in Minnesota that is heavily dependent on coal and natural gas, or the country at large.

    California gets about 1/3 its electricity from renewable sources, but also about 2/3 from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas. It might make sense for California to push for BEVs, since hopefully more than 1/3 of their electricity will come from renewables by the 2035 timeline. But that’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the country.

    Globally, China currently gets 60% of its electricity from fossil fuel, mostly coal, which changes the BEV calculation there. Shockingly, Japan is building 22 new coal powered electric generating plants, which together will release about as much CO2 as all the cars sold in the US:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/climate/japan-coal-fukushima.html

    As a result, in aggregate BEVs essentially have a ‘long tailpipe’ to whatever form of primary energy was used to generate the electricity. A report in Scientific American estimated that a Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius both produce on average about 200 grams of CO2 per mile (though it would be about 100 grams/mile CO2 in California, and 300 grams/mile CO2 in Minnesota):

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electric-cars-are-not-necessarily-clean/

    There is also a fundamental problem with how BEVs are promoted and the resulting perception of their ‘environmental friendliness’. The way MPGe numbers used for BEVs are calculated assume 100% efficiency in converting fossil fuel to electricity. This violates the laws of thermodynamics. In actuality, only 30-40% of the energy contained in fossil fuels can be converted into electricity in any thermal process (though newer combined cycle natural gas power plants can reach 50%). That means about 2/3 of the energy is wasted (plus about 10% lost in transmission). This has been widely discussed and reported:

    https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/08/mpg-for-electric-cars/

    https://personal.ems.psu.edu/~radovic/Chapter4.pdf

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/warrenmeyer/2010/11/24/the-epas-electric-vehicle-mileage-fraud/#54dc4b4929de

    https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy17osti/67645.pdf

    With only about 30-35% of the energy contained in fossil fuel actually converted into usable electricity, this means that to put 85 kWh of electric charge into a BEV requires 269 kWh of fossil fuel or nuclear energy. Thus, a Nissan Leaf that is advertised with ’99 MPGe’ in an apples-to-apples comparison is actually getting the equivalent of 28-36 real world MPG. Not bad, but certainly significantly different than what the flawed MPGe number suggests, and objectively not much better than a modern ICE car.

    When financial subsidies are taken into consideration, the picture gets murkier (though of course multi-millionaire Tesla buyers enjoy getting unneeded discounts on their purchases):

    https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2018/05/15/are-electric-cars-worse-for-the-environment-000660

    The calculation becomes even less favorable when taking into account the environmental impacts of lithium and rare Earth metal mining, battery disposal at end of life, etc.

    Nuclear fission energy is also not the answer. Nuclear energy (being a thermal process) is also about 30% efficient in converting the heat released by the fission of uranium into electricity. Nuclear power generates 19% of the electricity in the US and does not directly generate carbon emissions. However, mining and processing of uranium requires massive amounts of energy, impacts water supplies, as well as the thorny problem of disposing of nuclear waste (spent fuel), so nuclear fission might not be the best option for increased electric power in the future (fusion is a completely different and more promising story, but unfortunately we’re just not there yet).

    https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es702249v

    Of course the situation would be completely different IF electricity were predominantly generated from renewable sources (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, etc.). But at present, only 11% of electricity in the US comes from renewable sources. Hydro generates an additional 7% but has its own issues, including the environmental impacts of flooding regions when dams are built, questions about the future reliability of hydro power because of climate change, and the fact that it’s already fully developed in the US with little expansion ability.

    Like most things in life, the solution is going to be complicated, and not simply buying more electric cars. At its core, a fundamental need is to change the US, and world, electric generating grid to renewable sources. That will take a lot of money. Just for the US it would cost over $5 trillion (let’s assume a nice even $10 trillion with the inefficiencies, corruption, bureaucracy, and pork in our system):

    https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/2017/03/29/the-old-dirty-us-electric-grid-would-cost-5-trillion-to-replace-where-should-infrastructure-spending-go/

    Especially in the new coronavirus reality, with the world likely heading into several years of economic difficulties, and the US having to deal with trillions of dollars already spent on ‘economic recovery’, it’s hard to see where and when the money could come from to convert to renewable sources.

    So unfortunately, the bottom line is that with the current US electric energy grid, one might be better off simply burning fossil fuel directly rather than converting it into electricity to then power a BEV. As much as it might sting to some people the think about it, in many areas of the country, and world, a BEV essentially just has a ‘long tailpipe’ back to whatever power plant is generating the electricity – which more often than not is still fossil-fuel powered. It still comes back to having to change the US electric grid and how electricity is generated. Unfortunately, we are not going to save our planet one Nissan Leaf at a time. Until then, we’re just kidding ourselves with artificial and inaccurate ‘MPGe’ numbers that might make some people feel good, but don’t reflect reality.

    If we really want to save the planet – and ourselves – we need political leaders with the courage, wisdom, and willingness to make the massive financial investments needed to create an electric power grid fueled by renewables such as solar, wind, and tidal sources. With the past administration’s actions of cutting corporate taxes and reducing government revenues, the deep hole we’re in because of the pandemic and the trillions already spent and yet to be spent to dig us out, and the increasingly short-term thinking by private companies focused on instant profits, it’s hard to see where all the money will come from without some dramatic changes.

    I think Biden and his administration would love to see a massive push to building a renewable electric power grid – his actions since taking office show that he’s serious about fighting global warming. But he’s not the only one to make these decisions. There are irritating little realities like the House and Senate of Congress (and self-serving idiots like Joe Manchin).

    All that aside, again, where will the money come from? Ultimately, we will have to pay for it. There is no such thing as ‘government’ money. It’s our money, paid in the form of taxes, and entrusted to the government to hopefully do things with it for the good of all (yeah, right…). One way or another, whether through higher taxes or higher energy costs (if it’s left to the utility companies to do it), we will have to pay for converting the power grid to renewables. We regularly see how much a lot of people in this country love the idea of paying higher taxes, so that will sail right through without a hitch.

    Bottom line, right now BEVs and this initiative might make sense for California, with 1/3 of their electricity coming from renewable sources and hopefully more by the 2035 mandate. But in general, wishful thinking about BEVs doesn’t change the facts that they don’t really make sense yet for the country or world as a whole as long as the electric grid is primarily generated by fossil and nuclear fuels.

  2. It’s a nice idea but just giving people a $2K voucher to people who currently use gas scooters and mopeds to either convert them or buy new electric ones would probably do a lot more to reduce emissions while benefiting mostly lower income people rather than well-off hobbyists and the shops who cater to them.

    Because realistically two grand is a drop in the bucket for an EV conversion that’s anything more than a motor, the minimum of control devices and a shitload of lead acid batteries. A slower, heavier golf cart with less room inside. If you can afford better the rebate would be nice but it’s no incentive if you weren’t planning on doing it anyway and probably just means you can get a bit bigger battery or something.

    Maybe some regulatory work as far as the rules of the road and some discussions with the manufacturers as to lights, markings and safety equipment and some of the Chinese micro EVs could get on the road here. Or even better we could make them here, somehow, and keep our government incentive money at home. Hell, let’s copy theirs. What are they gonna do, complain?

    1. California like most government agencies don’t pay anything. Maybe a tax discount which is actually we will take less money from you than usual. Or we will knock off a few grand off of a $50k vehicle. Let’s realize the only money the government has to give you is Money they took from you to begin with.

  3. There are a lot of upsides to this—and a lot of hurdles, of course. But this is why I’m holding on to my Smart ForTwo: it will be the perfect around-town electric commuter. I know battery technology is still maturing and standardization needs some time, but this could be a brilliant cottage industry.

  4. As the used/scrap EV market increases I hope conversions do become more of a thing. Leaf powertrain swaps are becoming more common, it’s a much easier conversion and again better for the environment, to do a swap from a factory built EV into another car, than the old piece it together. There’s even folks like Resolve that basically make a controller for you to re-use all the Leaf components into whatever car you want.

    $2000 does seem to be mainly for the conversion houses, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the main differences between a conversion and factory built is fast charging, but for good reason.
    Hooking up 50kw of power to batteries you got from who knows where, with who knows what kind of thermal management could be very bad. Having established conversion houses is probably better for that then johnny-forklift-motor-and-alibabaterries.

  5. With the cost of a conversion, this looks to be more of a gift to the EV conversion businesses and a way that CA can say, “Look, I’ve done something.”

    CA is getting pretty good at passing legislation mandating stuff, even when there is no feasible technical or AFFORDABLE alternative*. Later when they take up legislation to remove older ICE vehicles, they can point back to this and say that they gave the people a chance to ‘convert’.

    * I’m still trying to figure out how battery generators are going to “generate” electricity and be superior to an ICE generator for blackouts that last several hours. I shouldn’t question the obviously smarter minds in the CA government, but I’m disobedient that way.

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