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New state building rule makes it easier to own an electric car

Environmentalists are hailing a new addition to California’s building code they say will help pave the way for electric vehicles and dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state.

New homes and apartments now are required to include the conduit and setup to accommodate electric vehicle charging stations.

Carl Mears, a prominent climate scientist and Cotati resident, endorsed the state green building code provision that went into effect July 1. The new rule doesn’t require the actual recharging hardware, but makes installing it a far less expensive proposition.

“It’s kind of crazy” that it wasn’t already required, said Bill Wolpert, a Petaluma architect and city planning commissioner.

Total conversion to zero-emission vehicles, envisioned by Gov. Jerry Brown by 2050, hinges on having the facilities to recharge battery-powered cars, including 40-amp outlets at home, advocates say. By 2025, Brown’s plan calls for 1.5 million ZEVs on the road.

Mears, who drives a Nissan Leaf electric car and charges it at his condominium, said the new provision will “lower the barrier” for the purchase of plug-in hybrids and electric cars, which are selling faster in California than any other state.

Nearly 60,000 new hybrid and electric cars were registered last year in California, bringing to nearly 130,000 the total since 2010, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. More than 500 were sold last year in Sonoma County, according to the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, which is compiling a report on the local presence of low- and zero-emission vehicles.

Fuel-burning cars and trucks account for more than one-third of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, which totaled 459 million metric tons in 2012, making transportation a major target in the state’s campaign to achieve an overall 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2020.

State officials have declared “electrification” of California’s transportation system a key goal, said Ann Hancock, executive director of the climate protection center.

“We need charging, charging, charging,” said Doron Amiran, electric vehicle program manager for the center, describing a “long-term transition” to an electric transportation system.

There are only three ways to reduce transportation emissions, he said: Stop moving around, which is untenable; a “mode shift,” using more mass transit and bicycles; and a “fuel shift” away from petroleum.

Wolpert, the Petaluma planning official and an advocate for electric vehicles, said the new building code is an important step. “I think it’s really cool that some people in government are thinking way ahead of the game.”

The code requires new single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses and multifamily projects to be built EV-ready, with the conduit and other structures to accommodate electric vehicle charging stations.

The Department of Housing and Community Development, which proposed the code, said the cost for a single-family home would be $50 to $300, noting that some builders have offered EV car charging capability as a $250 option for new homes.

The typical cost of retrofitting the equipment into an existing home is about $3,500 but could run higher, depending on issues like the distance from the electric panel to the charging station and possible trenching to connect the two, the department said.

“It’s a big pain if you’ve got to get an electrician and dig a big trench out to your parking lot,” said Mears, the Cotati climate scientist and Leaf owner.

Renters in apartment complexes likely would not be allowed or able to install car charging equipment and might “never be able to own an electric vehicle,” Wolpert said.

Electric vehicles are often thought of as luxury items, advocates say, like the Tesla Model S priced at about $70,000. But there are now at least 16 manufacturers offering plug-in hybrids and electric cars. They range in price from $24,000 to $100,000 and more, with the Nissan Leaf - the leading seller nationwide last year with 30,200 cars - at about $30,000.

Through June, more than 54,000 hybrids and electric cars have been sold in the U.S. this year, with the Tesla Model S and Leaf accounting for 40 percent of the total. The Chevrolet Volt, popular in California, is in third place with more than 5,600 sold nationwide, according to the website InsideEVs.com.

“You can’t drive a day in Sonoma County without seeing EVs cruising around,” Amiran said.

State building code is automatically incorporated in all cities and counties, said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa’s chief building official. The EV-ready requirement makes sense in new construction, he said, because it is “much cheaper to do it upfront.”

It’s an extension of the now-standard practice of installing cable television lines throughout a new home. The requirement for a 40-amp circuit to serve a car charging station is the same as what’s needed for an electric stove or water heater.

“Electric vehicles are part of the wave of the future,” Setterland said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @guykovner.

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