Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

9% of new Los Angeles vehicle sales to be electric by 2015, 11.7% by 2020, says UCLA study

nissanleaf 9% of new Los Angeles vehicle sales will be electric by 2015, 11.7% by 2020

Priuses may be a common sight in Southern California, but electric vehicles are still rare enough to turn heads — especially if they’re one of the new Chevy Volts or the sporty Tesla. But all-electric cars could become the norm in Los Angeles — faster than we think. According to a new report, 9 percent of new Los Angeles vehicle sales are expected to be electric cars by 2015. By 2020, that number could jump to 11.7 percent.

Those numbers come from a report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, which tackles environmental sustainability issues in L.A. If the numbers seem high to you, you’re not alone. Juan Matute, project director at the Luskin Center, says he too was surprised by the high figures. “Going in, I wouldn’t have expected electric cars to make up such a large share of the vehicle market,” says Matute. Paul Scott, a founding board member of pro-electric car nonprofit Plug-In America, agrees. “It’s an aggressive number,” Scott says.

Of course, electric cars have been getting a lot of press, the government’s giving out rebates and incentives for buying electric vehicles and chargers, and drivers are getting frustrated with the prices at the pump to boot — so not everyone may be surprised that more than a tenth of Angelenos could be opting for electric cars by 2020. The big challenge right now, in fact, is that the consumer demand is there, but the supply of electric cars is not — at least not yet. “[Nine percent] is very much doable as long as manufacturing can hit that number,” says Scott, who’s also a LEAF specialist for Nissan. “The word of mouth is through the roof on these cars.”

That said, although demand may outstrip supply right now, UCLA’s report points out that a future challenge will be convincing more Angelenos that electric vehicles are a viable option. “Range anxiety” — the fear of running out of charge and getting stranded — is one major misconception about electric cars that prevents people from buying them. Many aren’t aware that the new electric vehicles coming out can get more than 100 miles a charge — or that most drivers travel far fewer than 100 miles a day.

In addition, some Angelenos fear that electric vehicles won’t actually save money — partly because the electricity cost of owning an electric vehicle isn’t clear. If they could do a price comparison, they may be convinced to go electric. “The total cost of ownership model that we’ve done predicts at least [$83 monthly savings] or higher for the average Los Angeles driver in terms of vehicle operating cost,” says Matute.

Even when consumer concerns are assuaged, real infrastructure concerns remain for many. In a city where 57 percent of the population lives in multifamily housing and 52 percent are renters, many would-be electric car drivers have no practical place where they could charge up their machines.

That’s why right now, most electric car buyers are homeowners who can install electric chargers in their home garages. Scott says the average Nissan Leaf buyer he sees is between 50 and 60 years old, well educated, and “somewhat upwardly mobile” — “I would guess about $75,000 per year income.” That demographic will hold steady for the next couple years, says Matute, while electric car demand outstrips supply — because car manufacturers can pick and choose to target those able to buy higher-priced cars. “For the most part that buyer is wealthier, probably in the top quartile of incomes, probably more likely to live on the westside and have an advanced education, and probably environmentally minded.”

But these demographics will slowly change to include a wider demographic in coming years, says Matute — so long as incentives for buying electric vehicles continue, and public policies that make electric vehicle ownership viable are put in place. In fact, the report emphasizes that “The Los Angeles market offers great potential, but public policy is essential to help consumers embrace EVs.” Policies that allow more options for electric car charging — like new building codes that require electric car charging infrastructure for multi-family residences, for example — will help get more Angelenos to go electric.

And of course, replacing gas guzzlers with electric cars will mean other benefits for Los Angeles as a whole. Earlier this week, a report from the American Lung Assn. in California pointed out that fuel-efficient vehicles could save $7.2 billion annually in California health costs.

Will switching to electric vehicles really help clean up the air — even though Los Angeles still gets 39 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants? Yes, says Scott. For one, LA DWP customers can opt for green power — and get off coal both for their electric cars and their homes. For another, the two coal-fired plants L.A. still draws power from are both out of state — so a switch to electric cars will help clean up our local environment. That of course still creates pollution elsewhere and contributes to global warming — but at a rate 2.5 to 3 times less than a Prius, says Scott, citing a study (PDF) available on Plug-In America’s website.

Want to be among the 9 percent of electric car buyers in L.A. by 2015? Then start planning pronto, Scott says. “If you’re interested in an EV, get in the line early,” he says. “Start the research now, decide what it is you want now, get in line, and start saving for it.”

Photo: A Nissan Leaf in Santa Monica (Siel Ju)