California ramps up the speedometer on the electric vehicle future

By Larissa Koehler and Pamela MacDougall 

California recently made history when it committed to making every car across the state electric, with a specific goal for electrifying all operating trucks and buses by 2045. The move — along with a number of other clean vehicle initiatives — will eliminate a huge amount of climate pollution as well as other emissions that deteriorate air quality and impact public health. But what comes next?  How should the state prepare for this 100% electric vehicle future?

Rolling out more medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles will not be possible without building out more charging infrastructure.  This is a complex process for many reasons. For one, passenger vehicles have different charging needs than larger trucks and buses.  Additionally, more vehicle charging will also lead to higher electricity demand. Finally, some communities and neighborhoods — like those situated near transit hubs or high-traffic areas — are more directly affected by diesel pollution and may need clean vehicle solutions more urgently than other places. California needs to account for all of these factors to develop a plan that maintains a clean, reliable and affordable electric grid, and delivers clean air benefits to the communities that need it most.

Enter the Transportation Electrification Framework. This plan was first introduced by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018 and provides guidelines that utilities can use to smartly ramp up charging station deployment. Stakeholders from across the country (including EDF) have provided input on the plan, which the CPUC will finalize in the coming weeks. This framework will provide critical information that will help utilities organize their charging build out plans over the next few decades. 

In order for this revolution to be successful, there are three things that absolutely must be integrated into that framework.

Equity

 As mentioned earlier — not all communities experience the impacts of vehicle pollution to the same degree.  Heavy-duty trucks and buses simply emit more pollution than a standard passenger vehicle. Therefore, people who live along busy trucking routes, freight corridors, ports, rail yards or other facilities where there is a lot of heavy-duty vehicle traffic experience worse air quality. Many of these facilities are located in communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods — creating disproportionately more pollution for these groups. Utilities must consider this when developing their charging plans and should prioritize electrification of these areas first.

Secondly, this transition needs to be equitable for the vehicle owners too — particularly for fleet owners who will be required to purchase multiple vehicles. Because fleet sizes vary greatly, there must be a range of financing options made available to these vehicle owners. Due in part to the economic recession, smaller fleet owners in California are more capital constrained now than at other times in recent history. This means California will need to explore both private and public funding options to support and enable the transition of fleets. Otherwise, a one-size-fits-all approach will put some fleet owners at a disadvantage.

Reliability

More electric vehicles will demand more energy. In California, which has a history of experiencing energy blackouts, this is a significant concern.  Fortunately, if our charging systems are designed adequately, we can avoid putting additional strain on the grid and building out grid infrastructure more than is absolutely necessary. For example, utilities can make it cheaper to charge vehicles during off-peak times — which also more accurately reflects the cost of serving customers. Concurrently, utilities can also reward fleet owners who distribute energy back into the grid when demand is highest.  Designing charging rates that reflect the conditions of the energy grid is a valuable tool that should be part of electric vehicle transition planning.

Drivers, specifically those who drive longer trucking routes, need assurances that charging stations will be available to them, and that they’ll be able to charge their vehicles at any charging station, regardless of who owns and operates it. This too, should be accounted for in utility planning. 

Affordability

While the purchase price of electric vehicles is often higher than diesel counterparts, multiple analyses have found that electric vehicles may actually cost less in the long run because of fuel and maintenance savings. Additionally, California has a rebate program geared toward medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that can help offset the purchase cost. Despite this, many fleet owners still have concerns about upfront vehicle prices, often because they are unaware of the mechanisms available to bring down the upfront cost, and the potential for savings over time. Widespread marketing, education and outreach around rebate plans and vehicle financing should therefore play a significant role in any utility charging plan.

It is encouraging to see California continually lead the country on climate and clean energy policy.  The Governor’s vision for zero-emission vehicles is a truly forward-looking one and its benefits will be significant, but the transition has to be managed responsibly — factoring equity, reliability and affordability into this transitional process.  EDF and our allies are committing to work with utilities, fleet owners and others to ensure a fair and reliable clean vehicle future.

 

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