California has its eye on the prize when it comes to the future of its air and the future of its energy grid. That’s why it’s taking on the most aggressive EV charging station plan in the nation.
Three of California’s largest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, have proposed spending $1 billion to build the charging infrastructure for EV passenger vehicles and trucks up and down the state. That’s important because it is up to the states, not the federal government, to plan and build their EV charging station networks.
The wheels for California’s transformation began rolling in 2015 with the passage of SB 350, or the landmark Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act. It required utilities to develop plans to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification.” Why the focus on transportation electrification? As the most populous state and the freight capital of America, transportation accounts for roughly 40 percent of California’s carbon emissions.
If California is able to adeptly pull off this transition, it will paint a roadmap for other states as they tackle building their networks of EV charging stations. Utilities across the U.S. are launching EV charging projects. In 2017, 43 states took 227 actions related to new policies, studies and investments in electric transportation.
California already boasts the second largest EV car market in the world after China with more than 300,000 fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road — and that’s about to mushroom. Last year, electric vehicle sales grew by 21% and the automotive industry expects to introduce 127 new battery-electric models in the next five years. Analysts predict that with falling battery costs, electric cars will reach price parity with gas-powered cars by 2022, and could be cheaper than gas-powered cars as quickly as 2025. Ever-improving EV technology is giving consumers shorter charge times and reducing range anxiety. The final piece of the puzzle then is EV charging: it’s time to plan for an electric transformation.
California's electric future
But the three California utilities have hit a roadblock at the California Public Utilities Commission, which has proposed cutting these investments roughly in half (SCE proposed a $544 million investment for its large and heavily populated territory, PG&E proposed a $253 million investment and SDG&E proposed a $244 million investment). California must go whole hog in the EV transformation if it wants to leap into the EV age. Here are three key tweaks leaders at the PUC should consider for California’s electric future:
1. Increase the budget for Southern California Edison’s electrification plans for medium and heavy duty EVs to the $544 million investment originally proposed by the utility. Their territory in Southern California is home to a significantly larger volume of freight and goods movement, and has some of the worst air quality in the nation — that’s why their plan is focused on medium and heavy duty vehicles, a major source of old fashioned air pollution that contributes to the region’s infamously high asthma rates.
The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 40% of the incoming goods to the United States, a staggering 15.5 million TEUs in 2016. The ports estimate that switching to electric terminal equipment will already cost $1.8 billion. Adding EV infrastructure costs will only slow them down. Let’s invest more where we need it most.
2. Allow rebates for up to 100% of the costs for school districts and transit agencies to cover the cost of charging equipment and installation. California is the indisputable home of America’s EV manufacturing sector, which has made huge leaps in electric buses. As a result, agencies like LA Metro are committing to fully electric bus fleets by 2030. School districts and transit agencies with their cash strapped budgets will be covering the costs of the electric buses — but they need a boost when it comes to installing the charging stations to power them.
3. Allow rebates for up to 50% of costs for new charging equipment and installation in disadvantaged communities. These are places like East LA and the Inland Empire, where the air is thickest to breathe and they’ve historically paid the highest price for the pollution from freight and industry. (It’s worth noting that in California, the biggest gains in climate policies are often made by approaching the issue from an air quality standpoint. As a result, the state hits the proverbial two birds with one stone by aiming its sights at air quality.)
This rebate policy would recognize that right now electric vehicles are often more expensive than their combustion-based counterparts. Lack of funding for the chargers is something many industries may use as an excuse not to pursue electric. This solution meets business halfway by providing a rebate for half the costs of the plugs.
Leaping past California’s “clean coal”
California’s EV transformation is facing hefty opposition, and it’s not just from the wall of inertia air quality and climate advocates often experience. The natural gas industry has introduced “near zero” and “certified zero” campaigns for natural gas-powered trucks to deliver California’s freight and traverse its ports. They’ve used their hefty coffers to advocate against electric vehicles. But natural gas-powered trucks will not get California to its SB 350 mandated climate and air goals. There isn’t enough renewable natural gas to reliably power California’s transportation systems, and the rest of what’s being offered is fossil fuels dressed up in marketing.
The PUC is likely to finalize California’s transportation electrification plans in May. The commission is holding an All-Party meeting May 16 to discuss the PG&E, SDG&E and SCE proposals for transportation electrification projects.
The economic and clean air benefits of electrifying the Golden State’s transportation system are limited only by the ambitions of the Commission. If its commissioners decide to invest deeply in California’s future, it will change how easily Californians can charge everything from their electric passenger vehicles to their freight trucks and forklifts and help catapult us into an electric era. We will have built the framework for a statewide EV transformation, growing the manufacturing sector in the state and cleaning up our air at the same time. With all eyes on the West Coast, a bold electric charging investment plan would jumpstart a whole lot more than just California’s future.
Adrian Martinez is a staff attorney for Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign