Clean cars are key to climate goals. Utilities are helping

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Electric companies in the Northeast are trying to electrify the transportation sector in an effort to address daunting climate policies while creating business opportunities.

Transportation represents the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the region, and Northeast states will likely fall far short of their ambitious climate goals without a much larger presence of clean cars.

They will have to multiply the number of electric vehicles sold thirty- or fortyfold in eight years if they are to meet a sales requirement of 15 percent by 2025. They have offered incentives to consumers, such as large rebates, and launched campaigns to get people used to the vehicles. But the goals are still distant.

Two utilities in Massachusetts are trying to spur more car sales. They filed proposals with the state Department of Public Utilities to build EV charging infrastructure. Consolidated Edison Inc. in New York is also launching a charging demonstration project as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Reforming the Energy Vision.

“I would anticipate we will see more states encouraging this type of utility engagement because of the increasing recognition that there’s no way to meet global warming goals without substantial, substantial transportation electrification,” said Josh Berman, an attorney with the Sierra Club.

The utilities will not turn the tide on sales by themselves, but their involvement heightens the anticipation of wider EV adoption. It also marks an expansion of carbon-cutting efforts to a new sector now that the electric grid has seen significant increases in renewable energy. That means cars that plug into the grid will be cleaner than even the most fuel-efficient, gas-powered cars.

A long way to go

While EV sales continue to break records every month, with dozens of offerings like the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, they have a long way to go.

Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont have signed on to California’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate, which requires EVs to make up 15 percent of sales by 2025.

They have yet to crack 1 percent.

New York and Massachusetts are 2.4 and 2.5 percent of the way toward meeting the sales target, respectively, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“If automakers are to meet these incredibly ambitious zero-emission vehicle sales goals, it’s going to take a team effort,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the automaker trade lobby. “We’re hopeful if the utilities are coming to the table to begin a partnership that they do so in earnest and it be done sooner rather than later, because the vehicles are here.”

Many of the states in the Northeast have also set ambitious global warming goals.

A 2008 Massachusetts bill commits the commonwealth to reducing carbon emissions by at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The electricity sector has already cut its emissions by 60 percent in the last 16 years, while transportation emissions have continued to rise (Climatewire, Dec. 21, 2016). In January, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed a bill increasing access to electric refueling stations.

Connecticut is also required by state law to cut emissions 80 percent below 2001 levels by 2050. Analysis by a special state council found that the statewide fleet would have to be entirely electrified to meet that goal.

New York aims to lower its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

The ambitious requirements have prompted an alliance between environmental advocates and automakers to pressure state policymakers to increase funding for rebates, build public charging stations and electrify government fleets.

They’ve gotten increasingly creative. In Vermont, the Burlington Electric Department started offering a direct rebate of $1,200 to customers who buy or lease a new EV. In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage has backed building EV charging along the road to Quebec to promote tourism.

Building out infrastructure

National Grid and Eversource Energy became the first utilities in the region to seek approval from regulators to spend ratepayer money on EV charging stations. That was in January. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities could make a decision on the proposals by fall. They join a nationwide trend.

In a handful of Western states, legislators are requiring utilities to electrify transportation. Three major utilities in California are jointly spending more than $1 billion on charging stations. In states without sales requirements, like Kansas and Missouri, the incentive for utilities comes from the expected increase in load.

In the Northeast, it’s partly a question of keeping up with the market. Karsten Barde, principal program manager in National Grid’s New Energy Solutions office, said that providing charging stations has become an essential service to customers.

New York has 1.6 percent of the electric charging points needed to get to its 2025 sales goal, according to the alliance. Massachusetts has 4.3 percent.

Barde worked on National Grid’s recent proposal to essentially double Massachusetts’ charging infrastructure and educate users about clean cars. The $24 million, three-year-long program targets what Barde calls a lack of refueling stations at multifamily homes and along highways. It comprises 1,200 Level 2 EV charging stations and 80 direct-current fast-charging ports.

“We’ve been doing a lot of analysis on how we can help our state meet greenhouse gas reduction goals, and what’s clear is it’s a challenging set of goals that’s going to require action from all sectors,” said Barde. “Our proposal is definitely intended as just a start to what we understand is needed.”

Eversource, another major utility, has also prepared a $45 million program to build EV charging stations. It packaged the proposal in its general January rate case, which has faced criticism from ratepayer advocates.

Con Edison is weighing ideas for a $25 million demonstration of EV infrastructure, with a focus on New York City’s particularities, like quick curbside charging for taxis. Yesterday marked the last day to respond to its request for information.

The program partly seeks to increase “good charging,” like using an electric school bus as a battery on wheels, said Ari Kahn, who is leading the project for Con Edison. EVs can also absorb extra capacity created by increases in renewable energy.

“They work really well in parallel,” Cohn said. “We’re walking and chewing gum.”