California turns to clean-car plans

SAN FRANCISCO Tue Jun 14, 2011 12:16pm EDT

California Air Resources Board chairman Mary Nichols speaks during the Reuters Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco, October 13, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

California Air Resources Board chairman Mary Nichols speaks during the Reuters Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco, October 13, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California's clean air regulators, fighting to create a market for greenhouse gases and spur wind farms and solar projects around the state, are shifting their focus to an old friend and enemy -- cars.

State law requires California cut emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.

To do that California aims to let polluters trade the right to emit, which planners believe would create a race to find the most effective way to cut carbon emissions, and to vastly increase solar power and wind generation.

But the key, Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols told the Reuters Global Energy and Climate Summit in San Francisco, are vehicles which produce 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gases and a high percentage of other pollutants.

"Most important for Californians, from an air quality perspective, is still the cars. After all these years, it's still the cars," Nichols, who is hammering out new standards and incentives for battery and fuel-cell vehicles, said by phone.

California is the biggest U.S. car market and also has the distinction of being able to set policy independent of federal rules, making it over the years into a laboratory for change.

"The next big regulatory action that's going to be forthcoming both at the federal and the state level is the proposed emissions standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks that will be published at the end of September," she said.

The state also has a program focused on so-called zero-emission vehicles, the cutting edge of clean cars.

Regulators propose rules that in 2018 would put more than 81,000 clean vehicles on the road, or 5.5 percent of new cars sold, including vehicles which run at least 35 miles without emissions, such as the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, and pure zero-emission vehicles like the battery-only Nissan Leaf or a fuel cell vehicle.

That would rise to more than 227,000 vehicles, or 14 percent of the new fleet, in 2025. By that year 8 percent of new cars, or 127,000 cars sold, would be pure zero emission, slides from an Air Board presentation forecast.

Only about 5,000 pure electric vehicles have been put into service so far in California.

The state, whose rules could be followed by about a dozen other states and likely would influence national policy, aims to offer incentives as well as rules, and Nichols said a successful market would need charging and fuel infrastructure, for example.

(Additional reporting by Poornima Gupta, editing by Bernard Orr)

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