Lawmakers Want to Get Less Polluting Vehicles on the Road

Tom Johnson | June 15, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Proposed commission to study problems and promise of zero emission vehicles

The state is moving to assess just what obstacles are in place preventing New Jersey from complying with a tough mandate to sell zero emission vehicles and other less polluting cars.

In a unanimous vote, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee approved a bill (A-3028) that would establish a new Zero Emission Vehicle Commission to study what incentives and other steps the state needs to take to conform to an eight-year-old law requiring less polluting cars to be sold in New Jersey.

The law requires New Jersey to follow the dictates of a California low-emission vehicle program, although the exact mandates of the initiative are still unclear and have been subject to many changes by the latter state, according to lobbyists for the auto industry.

“The truth is none of us know what it really means,” said Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Auto Retailers, who supported the bill.

In the future, however, auto manufacturers will have to sell an increasingly larger percentage of so-called zero emission vehicles — either plug-in electric cars or vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells — to comply with the law.

New Jersey adopted the so-called Low Emission Vehicle program after a long and lengthy legislative debate. At the time, it was viewed as helping curb pollution from cars, a main ingredient in smog, which blankets the state during much of the summer.

More recently, it has been viewed as one of three crucial programs to help the New Jersey reduce greenhouse gas emissions, along with the state’s new energy master plan and a regional initiative to deal with climate change pollution, although the Christie administration pulled out of that program last year.

In a rare instance in which auto manufacturers and environmental groups found a consensus, both endorsed the latest bill, saying that without an infrastructure in place for plug-in electric cars and other vehicles, consumers will never buy enough vehicles to meet the law’s goals.

Efforts to develop that structure have lagged in New Jersey, in part, because another commission that was supposed to be set up under the original bill signed into law in 2004 was never established. As a result, there are few refueling stations for plug-in electric cars and none for hydrogen-powered fuel cells, the closest being at one of the airports in New York City.

In New Jersey, there are only 51 alternative fuel stations, the bulk of them involving compressed natural gas. And only 28 of those stations are available to the public. The Legislature has taken up some bills that would provide various incentives to install plug-in electric refueling stations at shopping malls and along rest stops of the New Jersey Turnpike, but none have been enacted into law.

According to auto manufacturers, New Jersey needs to provide incentives and dollars to help build an infrastructure for zero emission vehicles. In California, the state is spending nearly $150 million to help roll out the infrastructure for alternative-fueled vehicles, said Laura Dooley, of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“We feel this is the type of investment that is needed,” Dooley told the committee. Her alliance endorsed the bill because the commission will assess not only the costs, but also other issues impeding the switch to cleaner-running vehicles, like: “How do we get consumers to change their driving behavior?’

Others said it would be nearly impossible to comply with increasingly tougher mandates to sell zero emission vehicles here without the infrastructure in place.

By 2018, the original California program would have required 20,000 plug-in electric vehicles to be sold here, according to Appleton. Last year, there were 236 plug-in cars sold in the state, and another 170 so far, this year.

Under the original California program (before changes made by the California Air Resources Board), 250 fuel-celled powered vehicles were supposed to have been sold in New Jersey in 2007, Appleton said. There never has been a single fuel-cell vehicle purchased in the state, he said.

“We need to come up with a game plan to where we are today and where we need to go,” Appleton said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, supported bill, after it was amended to remove the ability of the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection to jettison New Jersey from the program.

Referring to the new commission, Tittel said, “It will come up with ways to implement the law, not get around it.”

New Jersey’s lack of action in implementing the law is a bit puzzling given that two companies based in state have both expressed interest in building out the infrastructure for plug-in electric vehicles — Public Service Electric & Gas and NRG Energy. The latter company, based in Princeton, is rolling out a plug-in vehicle infrastructure in and around Houston, Texas.