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Should I Buy an Electric Vehicle in California? All Your Questions Answered

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FILE - A Chevrolet Volt hybrid car is seen charging at a ChargePoint charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2018. Sixteen states across the country that have tied their vehicle emission standards to California's now face weighty decisions on whether to follow that state's strictest-in-the nation new rules and require that all new cars, pickups and SUVs be electric or hydrogen powered by 2035.  (Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Over the past few years, the KQED garage has become increasingly populated by electric vehicles. And the conversation at our shared office kitchens is turning to them too: how do they compare to cars that run on gas, when is the right time to buy, and what are the ever-changing incentives?

More than a quarter of the state’s new vehicle sales were electric at the end of last year, according to the state’s energy commission. Getting into the EV game is becoming more and more mainstream. But lots of questions remain.

So here we’re bringing you answers to the practical queries about incentives and timing and to the bigger picture ones about how much of an impact swapping a gas car for an electric one can have.

Jump straight to:

What rebates apply to me and the car I want?

As a first stop, check out the California Air Resources Board’s website, searchable by zip code.

Here are the federal incentives:

If you buy new:

You get up to $7,500 off at checkout (this instant rebate is new – before you had to claim the tax credit the following year) if:

  1. Your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) (line 11 of your Form 1040) from the year you buy or the year prior is less than:
    • $300,000 for married couples filing jointly
    • $225,000 for heads of households
    • $150,000 for all other filers

2. The manufacturer’s retail price (MSRP) is less than:

    • $80,000 for vans, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks
    • $55,000 for other vehicles

3. Final assembly of the vehicle is in North America.

4. A certain percentage of the battery is sourced from the U.S. or a trade partner.

If you buy used

You get 30% off (up to $4000) at checkout if:
1. You buy from a dealer
2. You have a modified adjusted gross income (AGI) (line 11 of your Form 1040) less than:

  • $150,000 for married couples filing jointly
  • $112,500 for heads of households
  • $75,000 for all other filers

3. The car costs $25,000 or less.
4. The car is two years older than the year when you buy it (e.g., the car has to be 2022 or earlier if you buy in 2024)

Some states have their own incentive programs. California doesn’t right now, as it transitions its program to focus on low-income residents.

To find local incentives, check out what your air pollution district and energy utility provider may offer.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District runs a program for people with lower incomes to replace highly polluting vehicles with newer ones or rebates for e-bikes or public transit. There is some funding for home car chargers as well.

Is now a good time to buy an EV, or should I wait a year or two?

From a cost perspective, yes, it is a good time to buy. Federal and state incentives are bringing certain EVs on par with the cost of gas vehicles.

But there are other factors to consider, like:

Do you drive a lot?

If yes, then buying an EV could save money. You won’t need to pay for gas, and EVs require less maintenance than traditional gas engines.

Changes to federal tax credits

Federal tax credits have changed for the better. You can use them right at checkout instead of waiting for tax season.

Federal tax credits have also changed for the worse. The list of vehicles that qualify for these tax credits has shrunk due to increasing requirements that components come from America or a trade partner. But that list of cars will grow as manufacturers overhaul their production and supply chains.

Do you want a car charger that can work with Tesla’s more built-out and reliable charging network?

Many automakers are standardizing their charging system to the one developed by Tesla. If you’d like that charging system to be native to your vehicle (you could alternatively use an adapter), wait a year or so for 2025 models.

Some companies have inked a deal where their drivers can also charge at Tesla superchargers beginning this year.

Should I buy new or used?

Both are good options.

Pros for buying used

Buying used will be cheaper, and even more so if you qualify for federal incentives.

From an emissions standpoint, a used EV is always better, said Scott Moura, UC Berkeley engineering associate professor. “You’re extending its life,” and stretching the greenhouse gas emissions that went into building the car.

Pros for buying new

Over time, batteries degrade, and mileage doesn’t tell the whole story of battery health. It matters how the battery has been charged (repeated charging at fast chargers degrades batteries faster than charging in a garage) and what kind of physical climate it’s been in. Batteries last longer in temperate versus extreme climates.

Compare the original range of the vehicle to its range when fully charged by the dealer. Give it a test drive and note how quickly the range declines to get a sense of what shape the battery is in.

Should I lease or buy?

Here again are two good options, depending on what’s right for you.

That said, keep this in mind:

If you buy, you may qualify for federal incentives.

But if you lease, you are more likely to. Leasing can unlock federal incentives if you, or the car you want, don’t qualify for credits if you were to buy.

That’s because companies that buy EVs don’t have the same stringent production and materials requirements in order to access incentives as individuals. That includes companies that lease cars. And many of those leasing companies will pass the federal incentive savings on to you (although they are not required to).

If you’re worried buying will leave you with a rapidly outdated vehicle, one thing to consider is that most EVs have “over-the-air” updates. That means the software systems will periodically upgrade, and voila, you’ll have new features in your car a few hours later.

How do I charge the car if I park on the street?

Not easily.

“First of all, let’s recognize that’s difficult. Let’s not ignore it,” UC Berkeley’s Moura said.

Options include where you work (only available to some), public and fast charging stations, though the latter could get expensive.

“We need to find ways where we can install a lot of charging points in apartment buildings and multi-unit dwellings without having to upgrade the electrical infrastructure,” Moura said.

Inês Azevedo, associate professor in energy science and engineering at Stanford University, said policy intervention is needed to build out charging and bolster rebates in low-income communities. EVs are within reach for people in middle and income brackets, but they are far harder to access for people who are low-income.

Some communities are getting creative with their charging ideas, piloting building public chargers from utility poles and streetlights.

What is the greenest kind of car?

No car!

One of the most effective individual actions you can take to bring down your personal greenhouse gas emissions is to ditch your car.

“The best way to get around in terms of emissions and also probably for your pocketbook is to bike, walk or use public transit,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Reichmuth also recommends considering an e-bike.

Figure out a carpool, Moura said, or even better, take the bus.

Here’s a story of one couple who totaled their car and chose not to replace it.

Is an EV truly greener than a gas vehicle?

In California and most of the U.S., yes (except some rural counties in the Midwest and South, where hybrids had fewer emissions than EVs).

Every time you fire up a car that uses gas, you are burning fossil fuels. EVs have zero tailpipe emissions.

It’s true that manufacturing an EV can create more pollution than making a car with an internal combustion engine (due to the energy required to manufacture the battery). But “over the lifetime of the vehicle, total GHG emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are typically lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car,” according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

On average, it takes 1-2 years of driving an EV for an electric vehicle to “repay its carbon debt,” that is, for the emissions that went into making it to match those saved from driving it. And it takes less time if a very green grid powers that EV.

California’s grid currently consists of 60% carbon-free electricity. The state’s goal is to have 100% clean electricity by 2045.

A graphic showing estimates for battery length.
Estimates represent model year 2020. Emissions will vary based on assumptions about the specific vehicles being compared, EV battery size and chemistry, vehicle lifetimes, and the electricity grid used to recharge the EV, among other factors. (U.S. EPA)

An EV is also way better for community health.

Combusting the gas that powers an internal combustion engine releases air pollution like fine particulate matter called PM 2.5, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, among others.

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Those pollutants can worsen asthma and increase the risk of heart attack, among other health complications. Adopting an EV sooner will bring these health benefits to your community sooner. Note: these air quality benefits are rolling out unequally, as there are more EVs in higher-income communities.

From an emissions standpoint, is it better to drive my current gas car into the ground before going electric?

Climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas said no. She writes, “When something burns fossil fuels every time you use it, scrap the old one and get a low-carbon new one as soon as you can afford it.”

Especially if you’re logging a lot of miles.

Azevedo said that older vehicles also tend to be “much more highly emitting” than new ones.

The exception is if you don’t drive very much. Then go ahead and keep that older car.

“Generally, I think it makes sense to hold on to the product that you have as long as you can,” Moura said. For one, it could reduce the number of new vehicles you purchase in your lifetime.

He also noted that the U.S. is building out its own EV supply and manufacturing chains and bolstering sustainability practices as it does so. Waiting may mean you’ll have a car made more sustainably and locally, requiring less shipping.

Does my switching to an EV really make a difference in tackling climate change?

If you were the only one who did? No.

But since you won’t be, yes.

Roughly 27% of California’s emissions come from passenger vehicles, according to the California Air Resources Board. Your one car won’t significantly move the needle, but en masse, an army of electric vehicles will reduce emissions.

And that army is coming.

A graphic showing how EV sales in California have grown.
In Q3 of 2023, from July through September, 26.7% of new cars sold in California were zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). (Courtesy of the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom)

California mandates that all new cars sold by 2035 be hybrid or electric.

Meanwhile, emissions from the state’s transportation sector have been decreasing. “It definitely is having an effect in aggregate, no doubt about it,” Moura said.

“It’s the single most important sector that we need to tackle right now,” Stanford’s Azevedo said. For one thing, the technologies are ready to go: the cars are “nearly perfect substitutes” for those powered by gas, Azevedo said. Costs are declining; sales are increasing.

Albert Gore, son of the former Vice President and executive director of the national advocacy group Zero Emission Transportation Association, said this is just the start. “We’re really just beginning to fully realize the impact of the last several years of policymaking and economic activity. There are investments that have been made in huge waves across the country that are going to transform the manufacturing economy in the United States for decades to come,” Gore said.

This figure shows the transformation of California’s light-duty fleet, with significant strides being made in fuel efficiency improvements and zero-emission vehicle adoption. (Courtesy of California Air Resources Board, December 14, 2023.)

To learn more about the costs and emissions of a specific EV, combined with the specific energy mix of the grid in your state, you can check out this tool by the Union of Concerned Scientists or this tool created by folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (fun tip: if you’re a Californian, click on “customize,” then “CA” and then the other states to see how different energy mixes influence vehicle emissions). This podcast can answer some of your more specific questions.

You can also decrease emissions based on when you charge. In California, charging an EV in the middle of the day when solar production is peaking results in a lower carbon footprint than charging in the evening. Presently, California’s electricity rates don’t align with this, and EV owners are incentivized to charge their vehicles at night.

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