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How Biden's election could kickstart U.S. adoption of zero-emission vehicles

The industries that make up the zero-emission vehicles sector — infrastructure providers, automakers, mobility startups — are one of the sectors that could gain the most from the Biden win.

President-elect Joe Biden

President-elect Joe Biden walking with supporters at a pre-Wing Ding march from Molly McGowan Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, in May 2020.

Relief. Most of us in clean economy circles are feeling it after the historic and protracted win by America's President-elect Joe Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris over the weekend. 

The industries that make up the zero-emission vehicles sector — infrastructure providers, automakers, mobility startups — are one of the sectors that could gain the most from the Biden win. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and a Biden administration that takes the threat of climate change seriously will make it a priority to tackle transportation emissions. 

Here are five things I'm watching for in a Biden bump that would accelerate ZEVs across the U.S.:

Trump's weakening of the auto emissions standards is toast: Earlier this year, the Trump administration officially weakened the federal auto emission standards that the Obama administration had enacted. The Trump administration called for just a 1.5 percent increase in carbon emissions standards per year through model year 2026, while the Obama plan called for a 5 percent yearly increase. 

Expect a Biden administration to not only revert back to the Obama-era emissions standards but potentially strengthen them considerably, moving more aggressively toward zero emissions. California also sued the Trump administration, attempting to protect its right to set stricter auto emission standards than the weakened one. You can expect this battle, too, to die on the vine as the Biden administration is not likely to challenge California's clean air waiver. 

The U.S. could follow California's ZEV mandates: If the federal government follows California lead, it already could use enacted ZEV mandates and incentives as a model for the U.S. The World Resources Institute's Dan Lashof advocates that the Biden administration should set a clean car standard that models California Gov. Gavin Newsom's recently enacted executive order to ban new gas car sales by 2035. The U.S. also could implement zero-emission commercial vehicles through legislation such as the Advanced Clean Truck Rule, WRI notes, that would set timelines to convert trucks and buses to zero emissions.

Aggressive? Yep. But we can hope!

Look for new transportation and clean air leadership: With a new administration comes new leaders that will have a dramatic effect on the shape of building back climate and environmental regulations. Politico has a great rundown on some potential Biden appointees. The ones that sustainable transportation advocates will be most interested in:

  • California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols told GreenBiz at VERGE 20 last month that she'd say "yes" if Biden called on her to help rebuild the EPA. She's supposedly the front-runner.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is reported to be the leading candidate for Transportation Secretary. Garcetti has committed to moving Los Angeles to zero-carbon transportation by 2050.
  • Ernie Moniz and Arun Majumdar, two former Department of Energy leaders, are reported to be in the running for top spots in the DOE. 

Watch for a ZEV infrastructure build-out: Earlier this year, the Biden administration revealed a $2 trillion climate plan that specifically calls out investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure to help build back the economy. On Biden's transition website, the administration says it will create millions of new jobs funding new infrastructure and investing in the future of a domestic auto industry. The administration says it also will fund zero-emission public transit in cities — from light rail to better bike infrastructure to buses. 

Anne Smart, vice president of public policy for EV charging company ChargePoint, said: "In his campaign platform, President-elect Biden called for the deployment EV charging stations across the nation. Now we have the opportunity to turn this promise into action through legislative initiatives such as the Clean Corridors Act, which will drive significant investment in EV charging and create jobs across the country."  

Non-profit Veloz, focused on electric vehicle advocacy in California, said it hopes to see a Biden administration overcome the three remaining barriers to the electrification of transportation; upfront cost; building out charging infrastructure; and increasing public awareness.

Hope for stimulus for EV buses: If the federal government were able to provide stimulus incentive money for cities to convert their bus fleets to electric, it could be an effective stimulus strategy, noted WRI's Lashof in a call with media Monday. Why? EV buses already can save cities money on fuel and maintenance costs, and also reduce air pollution, but it's just the upfront cost of the EV bus that's the barrier.

If stimulus money can eliminate the extra cost between a diesel bus and an EV bus — the way incentives do in some states such as California — the ZEV transition could happen more quickly.

What do you think? How do you think a Biden administration could kick start the zero-emission vehicle revolution? Drop me a note: [email protected].

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