Driving the Future: Improving Access to Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure in Rural California Part 1

Posted on Thursday, July 1st, 2021 by Benny Corona
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs announces executive order requiring that all new passenger vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035, a move the governor says would achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020

CalCAN recently partnered with Benny Corona, a recent graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California Berkeley, to review the current adoption rates of EV vehicles and infrastructure in rural California, with an emphasis on the Central Valley and among agricultural producers and workers. Below is a summary of that analysis and recommendations on how the state may better reach these key constituencies. This blog is part 1 in a 2-part series.

In September 2020, California Governor Newsom issued an ambitious executive order for the state to achieve 100 percent zero-emission (EV) passenger vehicle and truck sales by 2035.[1] Already a national leader in EVs, California is the first state in the country to set a goal of eliminating sales of new gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The state is also serving as a global leader in setting and investing in meaningful efforts that will help mitigate the climate crisis and unfold the renewable future.

While California leads the country in EV adoption, overall EV ownership is still relatively low in the state. EVs currently represent about 1.8 percent of all registered vehicles in California as shown in the following figure:

Data Source: California Department of Motor Vehicles registered vehicles data up to December 2020

To fulfill the EO, California will need to increase this share of EVs in the long run, although there is already evidence that the total sales of new EVs is increasing over time as shown in Figure 2:

Data Source: California Energy Commission[2]


Vast Majority of light duty EVs Found in Coastal, Urban Regions:

The California Energy Commission currently tracks the sales and population of light duty zero emission vehicles (EVs) in California in partnership with the Department of Motor Vehicles. From the California Energy Commission data dashboard, we know that about 80 percent of all light duty EVs are registered in 12 coastal counties: San Francisco, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Sonoma, Marin, Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, and Ventura. This is shown from the California Energy Commission data dashboard in Figure 1.

Meanwhile, the rest of California’s light duty EVs are scattered throughout the remaining 46 California counties. Rural California, as defined by the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRA)[3], only represents 6.8 percent of light duty EVs. This is shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 1

Data Source: California Energy Commission. The 12 counties in blue in this spatial map represent 80 percent of all registered light duty EVs in California. Darker blue represents higher concentrations of EVs.


Figure 2

Data Source: California Energy Commission. The 37 counties in blue represent rural California and 6.8 percent of all light duty EVs in California. Darker blue represents higher concentrations of EVs.


After conducting an analysis of state EV incentives programs, such as the Clean Assistance Vehicle Program (CAVP) and the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP), we also found lacking rural participation. Out of 3,157 grants distributed by the CAVP, we found that only 277 grants were distributed in rural counties, representing just 9 percent of the total grants. Out of 409,609 rebates distributed by the CVRP, we found that only 23,777 rebates or 6 percent were distributed in rural counties.

It is likely that in the coming years leading up to the EO deadline, EVs will reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles[4]. In the meantime, it is necessary to ensure that rural Californians for whom the higher cost of EVs is most likely to be prohibitive, have the resources to comply with the order. This is because rural California has higher portions of the population who are  low-income and working-class people, compared to urbn, coastal regions, and  for whom access to EVs is a greater barrier than higher income households[5].

The success of California’s efforts to move away from combustion engine vehicles to EVs will likely be stymied unless the state pursues policy pathways to better support rural California in accessing EVs and related infrastructure. To better understand these issues, we offer the following summary of current barriers to EV adoption in rural California.

Barriers to Rural California EV Adoption:

  • High Cost of EVs: EVs tend to be more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts. As a consequence, we see higher rates of EV adoption in urban, middle, and upper income communities, largely located in coastal communities.  For example, in our recent analysis we found that the top 20 zip codes with the most EVs are all concentrated in the Silicon Valley area of California, with some of the highest educated and highest income zip codes in the state.[6]
  • Limited Charging Infrastructure: The development of rural charging infrastructure is a crucial step in rural EV adoption. As of now, there are 5,494 public and privately-shared EV chargers in rural counties, representing 7.5 percent of all EV chargers in California, according to data from the California Energy Commission. Meanwhile, just 12 coastal counties represent about 85 percent of all public and privately-shared EV chargers.
  • Limited EV Options for Essential Workers & Agriculture in Rural California: In rural agriculture regions the lack of EV trucks in the market[7] can be a constraint on EV adoption. The lack of charging infrastructure on farms and ranches is also a constraint for farmworkers and others working in agriculture.
  • Political Apathy: While mitigating climate change and reducing reliance on fossil fuels may be a prevailing issue throughout California as a whole[8], rural communities often have different priorities and what is perceived as more immediate priorities[9]. Among them is water access since agricultural economies depend on it, and hundreds of thousands of rural Californians lack clean drinking water[10]. More can and should be done to make EVs relevant to improved quality of life for rural Californians.
  • Cultural Preference for Gas-Powered Vehicles: The presence of EVs and EV infrastructure leads to the normalization of EV usage in urban parts of the state, while rural communities are less likely to view EVs as a transportation norm. Instead, gas-powered vehicles are the transportation norm, and in rural areas where a significant portion of the population are essential workers, heavy duty gas-powered vehicles become the ideal market preference.
  • Lack of EV Education: A consistent theme of the interviews conducted in this analysis and of the literature review, is that the lack of EV education in rural communities is limiting EV adoption. Even if someone is interested in purchasing an EV, they likely will not be aware of the environmental and financial opportunities associated with an EV which include various state, federal, and local grants and rebates, and tax credits.

[1] California, S. of. (2021, April 26). Governor Newsom Announces California Will Phase Out Gasoline-Powered Cars & Drastically Reduce Demand for Fossil Fuel in California’s Fight Against Climate Change. California Governor. https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/09/23/governor-newsom-announces-california-will-phase-out-gasoline-powered-cars-drastically-reduce-demand-for-fossil-fuel-in-californias-fight-against-climate-change/.

[2] California Energy Commission. (2021, April 30). Zero Emission Vehicle and Infrastructure Statistics. California Energy Commission. https://www.energy.ca.gov/data-reports/energy-insights/zero-emission-vehicle-and-charger-statistics.

[3] RCRC. (2020). Counties. Rural Counties. https://www.rcrcnet.org/counties.

[4] Hanley, B. S. (2020, October 22). UBS Predicts EV Price Parity In 2024. CleanTechnica. https://cleantechnica.com/2020/10/22/ubs-predicts-ev-price-parity-in-2024/.

[5] California State Office of Rural Health. (2020, November 18). Rural Health Information Hub. Rural health for California Introduction. https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/states/california#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20USDA%20Economic,per%20capita%20income%20at%20%2450%2C267.&text=The%20unemployment%20rate%20in%20rural,USDA%2DERS%2C%202019).

[6] Corona, B. (2021, May 21). Driving the Future: Improving Electric Vehicle Adoption in Rural California. CalCAN.

[7] Duffer, R. (2020, October 22). Where are the affordable electric pickup trucks? The Car Connection. https://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1130049_where-are-the-affordable-electric-pickup-trucks.

[8] Baldassare, M., Bonner, D., Dykman, A., & Lawler, R. (2020, October 22). PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Environment. Public Policy Institute of California. https://www.ppic.org/publication/ppic-statewide-survey-californians-and-the-environment-july-2019/.

[9] Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., Brown, A., Fry, R., Cohn, D. V., & Igielnik, R. (2020, May 30). How urban, suburban and rural residents’ view social and political issues. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/05/22/urban-suburban-and-rural-residents-views-on-key-social-and-political-issues/.

[10] Guo, E. (2020, November 20). In California, 1 million people lack access to clean water. High Country News – Know the West. https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.12/south-pollution-in-california-1-million-people-lack-access-to-clean-water.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN