Who Killed the EV Part II: Can California’s ZEV rules deliver an energy revolution?

The award-winning 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? chronicles the controversial history of California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate. As the movie tells it, the rules prompted major automakers to produce pathbreaking EVs until 2003, when the automakers got the upper hand and crushed both the EVs and the ZEV mandate itself.

In fact, as I show in the November issue of IEEE Spectrum, the program is back and entrepreneurs, car companies and interest groups are scrambling to exploit its incentives to favor their respective automotive visions (see “California to Rule On Fate of EVs”). Far from a failure, the ZEV program’s prodding exposed automakers to the potential of electric propulsion — insights that Toyota applied in its market-leading Prius hybrid — and it may well accelerate the arrival of further innovations.

The ZEV program shows that mandating innovation is a messy process full of unintended consequences. But it may be just what we need to drive adoption of the technologies currently available to slow the growth of greenhouse gases. In his provocatively titled book Sustainable Fossil Fuels Canadian energy economist Mark Jaccard identifies the ZEV program as the forerunner of the renewable portfolio standards adopted by the EU and many U.S. states that are helping to drive installation of wind turbines, large-scale experimentation with new forms of solar power, small-scale hydropower and other renewable sources of electricity. (This summer Congress rejected a proposal to require 10% renewable energy across the U.S. by 2020.)

Jaccard believes that “niche market regulations” such as the ZEV mandate and renewable portfolio standards will be key policy tools to force real change, second only to a cap-and-trade program regulating CO2 emissions (Jaccard would prefer energy taxes to both, but believes they are not politically feasible). In other words, targeted programs like the ZEV mandate that force major industries to try new approaches may be just the thing to deliver meaningful change in the way we use energy.

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