California is set to become the first state in the country to phase out gas-powered lawn equipment.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Saturday that would require new small off-road engines (SOREs), used primarily for landscaping, to be zero-emission by 2024. The legislation comes with $30 million in funding to help aid the transition.
“Small gas engines are not only bad for our environment and contributing to our climate crisis, they can cause asthma and other health issues for workers who use them,” said California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D, an author of the bill, in a statement. “It’s time we phased out these super polluters.”
According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), operating a gas leaf blower for an hour can create as much smog-forming pollution as driving a Toyota Camry for 1,100 miles. The agency estimates that the state is home to some 14.4 million SOREs in the residential and commercial lawn equipment sector.
Nationally, the Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018, Americans used nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 3 million homes.
“We feel it’s going to be transformative,” said Daniel Mabe, the founder of the American Green Zone Alliance, a company aimed at helping people transition to lower-impact landscaping. He sees the law as a way to help accelerate a movement that’s already underway.
Manufacturer Stanley Black and Decker estimates that the volume of electric-powered lawn equipment that North American manufacturers shipped jumped from about 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million in 2020 – a leap of more than 75% in only five years. And during that time electric equipment went from roughly 32% to 44% of the overall lawn equipment market. Makita, another manufacturer, has said that it “will cease production of all gas-powered equipment worldwide” by March.
Mabe is particularly glad to see the California legislature committing money to the initiative. “Traditionally the [electric vehicle] and solar industries have had the lion share of funding mechanisms,” Mabe said. “It’s a big win that they’re going to fund this.”
Not everyone, however, supports the new law.
“We are not trying to say we want gas powered equipment forever. We get it, [electric is] coming,” said Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “All we’re asking for is a little more time.”
Bray said the hurdles involved with the transition are multifold. Aside from upfront costs – a commercial electric lawn mower can cost more than twice its gas equivalent – he says it often doesn’t perform as well, with less power and shorter usage times. And, he added, the charging and repair infrastructure isn’t nearly robust enough yet.
“We have a lot of trepidation and fear,” said Bray, noting that the $30 million in funding that California enacted is far from sufficient. Ultimately, he said the law could lead to higher prices for landscaping customers.
The California ban may still hit snags. The new legislation, for instance, allows the California Air Resources Board to delay implementation depending on feasibility. Under the federal Clean Air Act, California must also apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for authorization to “enforce its own standards for new nonroad engines and vehicles.” Only after that is granted can other states take similar steps.
“California has to get over that hump,” said Richard Reibstein, a lecturer of environmental law and policy at Boston University, as well as an advocate for lower-impact equipment. “Then other states can follow them.”
It’s unclear exactly how long that process might take. In the meantime, though, municipalities across the country, as well as the sate of Hawaii, have enacted some form of leaf blower restrictions. In December 2018, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill banning the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, to go into effect in 2022. And Massachusetts is considering a bill that would provide incentives for cities and towns to transition toward quieter, lower emissions equipment.
But California’s bill is decidedly further-reaching than existing measures.
“It’s much broader,” said Jamie Banks, the founder of the nonprofit Quiet Communities. “I think it’s going to wake people up to the possibility that transition is possible and may even become necessary.”