Russ Nightengale doesn't look to me like the type of guy who would drive an electric vehicle. He is young, a bit grizzled, wears his ball cap in the flat-brim "bro" style and professes no love for intrusive government.
Yet, here he was on Friday, pulling into the Tesla service center in southwest Bakersfield to have a sensor repaired on his wife's 2015 Model S. She loves her white Tesla, he loves his blue one and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who would like to see a few million more Californians in EVs, loves them all, both drivers and cars.
"EVs aren't for everybody, but after I explain the math and the economics behind it, it clicks for people," said Nightengale, a 27-year-old resident of Ridgecrest and something of a self-appointed EV ambassador. "They make sense."
He said it out loud, too, right here in the middle of California oil country. Fossil fuel extraction has been an essential part of the Kern County economy for more than a century, but these days it's under siege and Nightengale's Tesla obsession helps tell the story.
The state Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the University of California and others, is developing strategies to engineer a major decline in California oil production, an industry centered primarily in Bakersfield. The study is one of two $1.5 million state budget appropriations dedicated to helping California arrive at an ambitious goal: 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045.
Nightengale, a former (gasoline-burning) Dodge Dart driver, personifies a major aspect of the plan: A wholesale transition away from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles in favor of EVs. The tipping point is a long way off, but it's visible on the horizon and closing fast.
Virtually every major carmaker offers an EV today; California-based Tesla is by far the biggest seller, with three of the top four models (and 84,000 of the 107,000 sold in the U.S. in the first half of 2019) but models like the Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 are holding steady.
For many would-be buyers in Kern County, however, one significant hindrance might give them pause: The EV-owning experience can require almost a wholesale reordering of one's life. Issues like battery life and the availability of fast, high-voltage "super-charge" stations demand careful review before one pulls out of the driveway for anything much more ambitious than a trip to the grocery store.
"You have to be a good planner," said Dr. Alex Lee, a Bakersfield physician and three-year Tesla Model X owner. "It can be a challenge, sometimes, planning how just to get from point A to point B."
California has 27 million cars and trucks, a mere 570,000 of them EVs. It has 20,000 commercial charging stations to handle EVs now on the road but, according to former Gov. Jerry Brown's vision for our carbon-neutral future, the state will need 250,000 EV stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations by 2025 to handle the 5 million zero-emission vehicles he'd like to see in California by 2030. That's a twelvefold increase in fueling stations.
So, go ahead and keep your Chevron credit card while the state works with different entities, public and private, to develop, fund and roll out those charging stations.
Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said public utilities and oil companies are among the players, current and potential, in the development of charging stations.
Chevron is offering EV fast-charging ports at five gasoline stations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, in partnership with EVgo, whose EV-charging network is in 34 states. Chevron is also an investor in ChargePoint Inc., another major network. And Royal Dutch Shell, whose spinoff Aera Energy has a strong presence in Kern County, is buying Greenlots, another U.S.-based charging service.
Those investments won't put much of a dent in the needs of California's growing number of EV owners, but it's a start in one important direction: The colocation of fossil fuel and zero-emission fueling stations makes sense.
The state is funding the construction of charging stations, in part, with cap-and-trade funds. A CARB-sponsored pilot project offering rebates of up to $80,000 per port for businesses and nonprofits in "disadvantaged communities" that buy and install eligible EV fast-chargers in three San Joaquin Valley counties, including Kern — with a total of $14 million available — transitions to full-on, permanent status on Dec. 11. Rebates of up to $70,000 are available in communities not determined, based on California Energy Commission criteria, to be disadvantaged.
Volkswagen's 2016 settlement of $423 million with California for having created software to cheat air pollution regulations, will also help fund the state's zero-emission push, with a 2 percent share, $10 million, going toward light duty vehicle infrastructure, mostly EV charging stations.
"I guess some government involvement is necessary to make this all happen," Nightengale conceded.
Until the day an adequate network of EV charging stations come on line, though, some EV drivers will always have that vague sense of foreboding known as "range anxiety." The foreboding might be especially intense in Kern County, where just 28 public super-charge stations (including 15 in Bakersfield) are on line. That is one for every 32,000 residents, a fraction of the statewide ratio of one for every 2,000. And distances between charging stations in this New Jersey-sized county tend to be great, especially outside of Bakersfield.
"When that time comes that we have enough charging stations, we totally change the anxiety level," Dr. Lee said. "You would solve the one drawback (of EVs) and really at last be able to help the environment."
But Nightengale, a civilian employee at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, kind of enjoys the clubby sense of exclusivity that the thin infrastructure creates, even if he has to travel all the way to Bakersfield (115 miles) for many of his Teslas' service needs.
"When you're at a super-charger, you tend to talk to a lot of other EV owners who are right there, and I've cleared up a lot of confusion," said Nightengale, who is trying to establish a countywide club for owners of EVs, all makes, models and sophistications. (His Twitter handle is @xsnrubicon.)
He and his Tesla-loving wife, pregnant with their third child, sometimes turn their refueling outings into date nights of a sort.
"There's a super-charger in Inyokern, about 10 minutes from my house," he said. "My wife and I go, plug in and then walk over to Classic Burgers, which is right there next door. It's not as fast as In-N-Out, but it's as good."
Clearly, for some, EVs aren't so much transportation as lifestyle.