California has taken a leading role in the United States in terms of decarbonization goals, aiming to be powered by 100% clean energy by 2045. That commitment more recently has gained some muscle as the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued a mandate with significant consequences for fleet operators.

The mandate, whose requirements start in 2023, is a phased strategy to move to zero emissions for medium- and heavy-duty on-road vehicles in the state by 2045, and by 2035 for drayage trucks and off-road vehicles and equipment. It is one of the biggest steps the state has taken toward its long-term objective.

This move recognizes that the transportation sector is among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state and, by extension, the country. CARB is moving to address that issue through a few programs, including the phased transition to zero-emission fleet vehicles and a ban on selling passenger vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) in the state by 2035.


Feeling the Impact

These changes will affect countless companies and people, who will need to understand what is coming and prepare accordingly.

First and foremost, the mandate will affect utilities as electricity demand surges. Although electric vehicles (EVs) are not the only option to meet zero-emission vehicle requirements, the technology is more advanced and the vehicle options more plentiful than hydrogen-powered vehicles, which are the next likeliest contender. Existing infrastructure enhances that advantage: California has fewer than 100 hydrogen fueling stations, but thousands of electric charging ports are publicly available. Furthermore, it is relatively straightforward for individuals to retrofit homes to support EV charging.

Organizations operating fleets will bear the brunt of the impact, because conversion to fleets of electric vehicles will most likely require adjustments to how the business operates. They will need to identify how to transition to zero-emission vehicles without having a large, adverse impact on current operations. This hasn’t been top of mind for many before now.

Fueling and refueling will be another major factor for fleet operators, whether they’re a bus fleet for schools, a business running a few cars, or a national package delivery business. With ICE fleets, fueling was as simple as dropping by a nearby gas station for a few minutes to fill up the tank, or perhaps setting up a fueling station in the fleet yard. Zero-emission vehicles change the equation as fleet operators reevaluate range and charge timing.

How the vehicles are driven will matter, too: Because driving with a heavy foot can drain batteries faster, more emphasis will need to be put on driver training. People rarely think of that detail currently, but soon enough they’ll need to — unless the battery technology and hydrogen catch up quickly enough to make that detail a non-issue.

Change management is going to be a critical practice for those impacted by the CARB mandate, because the programs will affect everything from the equipment being operated to the necessities of the maintenance yard.

Taking Action

In light of the sheer scale of the mandated changes, planning is going to be essential. Organizations will need to plan their operations, understand the imminent change in their operations so they can plan around it, and understand the risks they will need to mitigate.

Technology assessment will be important as well. For example, a level 2 EV charger will take hours to recharge a vehicle. Practical solutions will require development of higher-speed charging or breakthroughs in battery technology. Organizations will need to plan and design for the future, rather than for what’s currently possible.

Even before the mandate, several large utilities had begun moving toward carbon reduction goals, including by beginning a transition to EVs. The sooner operators begin the planning process, the better, because making the move to zero-emission vehicles is expensive and takes time. Replacing vehicles and installing infrastructure are costly initiatives; without proper planning, such efforts can become even more expensive if initial capital investments have to be ripped out and redone.

The CARB mandate is an attempt to develop a sensible phased approach with a focus on the future. Its schedule looks implementable, assuming supply chain constraints continue to loosen. The board appears prepared to hear out and accommodate those who might struggle with the deadlines, as long as it sees progress being made.

With funding becoming available through a variety of state and federal channels, this is a good time to act. The sooner grants are applied for, the sooner they might be secured, potentially mitigating some of the costs associated with making this huge transition.


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Milad Arouni serves as a manager for electrical transmission and distribution projects with a focus on emerging power markets at Burns & McDonnell. He provides consulting and engineering services on wind, solar, energy storage and electrification projects, helping clients transition technologies and business models to the next-generation electric grid.