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California on Friday became the first state to mandate a full shift to electric buses on public transit routes, flexing its muscle as the nation’s leading environmental regulator and bringing battery-powered, heavy-duty vehicles a step closer to the mainstream.
Starting in 2029, mass transit agencies in California will only be allowed to buy buses that are fully electric under a rule adopted by the state’s powerful clean air agency.
The agency, the California Air Resources Board, said it expected that municipal bus fleets would be fully electric by 2040. It estimated that the rule would cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases by 19 million metric tons from 2020 to 2050, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.
Environmental groups said the new regulation was an important step in cutting tailpipe emissions, which are a major contributor to global warming and California’s notorious smog.
“Previously, there was the notion of going incrementally cleaner with transit — by using natural gas, for example,” said Adrian Martinez, a lawyer at Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. “But California has grown to realize that’s not good enough anymore. They’ve realized that they need to move to zero emissions.”
The rule has been several years in the making. It was opposed by the natural gas industry, which balked at losing the stable, long-term fuel contracts that the state’s public buses provided.
Todd Campbell, an executive at Clean Energy Fuels, a provider of natural gas for vehicles, said the rule was troubling because natural gas already provided a lower-emissions alternative, and because of the significant investments that cities had already made in natural-gas vehicles.
But the air resources board’s 16 members on Friday voted unanimously to adopt the measure.
“A zero-emission public bus fleet means cleaner air for all of us,” Mary D. Nichols, the chairwoman of the agency, said in a statement. “It dramatically reduces tailpipe pollution from buses in low-income communities and provides multiple benefits especially for transit-dependent riders.”
Under the new rule, the state’s transit agencies will need to start updating their fleets well before 2029. Starting in 2023, a quarter of their new buses must be electric, and by 2026 that requirement will rise to half of all new buses. About 150 electric buses run on California’s roads today, a small fraction of the state’s fleet of 12,000 buses.
Despite the upfront costs of buses and charging infrastructure, the board said local communities would save money in the long run — as much as $1.5 billion in maintenance, fuel and other costs by 2050. California also offers incentives for hybrid and zero-emissions trucks and buses.
Some technological challenges remain. San Francisco has said it wants more proof that electric buses can withstand heavy ridership and the city’s famously steep hills. And the rollout of electric buses in Los Angeles, Albuquerque and other cities has been marred by mechanical problems and shorter-than-advertised driving ranges.
Even so, electric buses have started to attract considerable attention. The Chinese automaker BYD has aggressively marketed its electric buses around the world, and it builds some of them in Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles. Proterra, an electric bus start-up based in California, recently secured a $155 million investment from investors led by Daimler, the German automaker.
The United States is playing catch-up in electrifying its bus fleet. Shenzhen, China, announced last year that all of its 16,000 buses were now electric.
California, which under federal law has unique authority to write its own clean air rules, has long led the country in pushing for stronger emissions regulations, and it has taken on the mantle of climate change while the Trump administration is rolling back climate policies. The state has vowed to stick to more stringent emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks even as President Trump moves to weaken those rules.
Environmentalists say the state’s move toward zero emissions in public buses could spur electrification of other types of large vehicles.
“The hope is that as buses lead, trucks will be a couple steps behind them in zero-emissions technology,” Mr. Martinez said. “Then forklifts, UPS trucks, even yard trucks.”
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Hiroko Tabuchi is a climate reporter. She joined The Times in 2008, and was part of the team awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. She previously wrote about Japanese economics, business and technology from Tokyo. @HirokoTabuchi • Facebook
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