Plug-In Electric Vehicles Still in the Slow Lane

Tom Johnson | September 23, 2011 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey joins Mid-Atlantic initiative to develop network of vehicle charging stations across the region

New Jersey is taking some small steps toward building a network of charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, joining 10 other states and the District of Columbia in the an effort to come up with a development plan.

The U.S. Department of Energy yesterday awarded nearly $1 million to jump start the venture. Officials hope it will eventually enable electric cars to drive from northern New England to Washington, D.C.

The initiative comes at a time when New Jersey has already made a tentative effort to build a network of charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles, which are expected to be rolled out by automakers in the coming months. While several bills providing incentives to build the stations at malls, rest areas, and other locations have been acted on by the legislature, none have been enacted into law.

This inaction has disappointed clean energy advocates, who have pushed the Christie administration to do more to usher in an era of cleaner-running vehicles. What’s more, two companies in New Jersey, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) and NRG Energy, have expressed interest in building such a network. The latter is already building charging stations in and around Houston, Texas.

In the recently revised Energy Master Plan (EMP), the Christie administration talks about developing the infrastructure for electric vehicles—as well as compressed natural gas vehicles for fleets—but sets no specific targets.

While environmentalists push plug-in vehicles, some administration officials who worry that the increased energy use from electric cars could put a further strain on a overburdened power grid that keeps prices high for consumers and businesses in New Jersey.

Still, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin touted the grant in a release issued by his agency. “In addition to helping us reduce auto emissions and improve the health of our residents, this new network will provide an economic boost to the state through creation of new green jobs in research and production of electric cars and electric vehicle infrastructure,” he said.

The joint initiative by the states aims to create consistent rules and standards across the entire region by attracting private sector investment to encourage development of an electric vehicle market for both consumers and the electric vehicle industry. The rationale is that by making the electric vehicle experience common, standardized and easy to use, it will help grow the industry. Likewise simplifying regulations and permitting processes will speed the development of the infrastructure.

The Northeast Electric Vehicle Network project will develop a plan and accompanying guidance documents for the introduction of the charging stations. The parent Transportation and Climate Initiative, meanwhile, will work with the Clean Cities Coalitions to bring together stakeholders to discuss the concept, adapt documents to local audiences, and convey the benefits to local policymakers.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the planning process by the 11 states is expected to end by December 2012. In the meantime, the states will talk to companies, including NRG Energy, about where the stations should be located and what type of hurdles there may be to installing the charging stations, he said.

The states expect the federal government will help with future grants to develop the network of charging stations, Hajna added.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was unimpressed. He argued the grant for planning occurs even as the administration and Republicans in the legislature have failed to support bills to provide incentives to create charging stations at malls and rest stops.

“New Jersey is completely unprepared for this change in transportation,” he said. “Not only will this hurt New Jersey consumers and cost jobs from building the stations to selling the new vehicles, but this will hurt our environment.”