NJ Efforts to Roll Out Zero-Emission Vehicles Taking Back Seat to Other Initiatives?

Tom Johnson | December 11, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Advocates argue that electrifying transportation sector would save money for drivers and other consumers, but Rate Counsel wants to put on the brakes, citing steep subsidies

Credit: Via Creative Commons
electric vehicle
Are New Jersey’s efforts to electrify its transportation sector, a policy widely endorsed by a diverse coalition of advocates, faltering as other clean-energy policies emerge as bigger priorities?

That question surfaced yesterday as legislators took up a measure (A-4634) that would put in place a comprehensive plan to promote the use of plug-in electric vehicles. New Jersey lags behind other states in ushering in zero-emission cars.

In a joint hearing before two legislative committees, advocates described the bill as a bold move that would grow the economy and save money for drivers of electric vehicles, as well as all electric customers. They urged action on the legislation, already approved by a Senate committee, but yet to be acted on by the Senate Budget Committee.

“We need the charging infrastructure fast and we need to make it publicly available,’’ said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC, a coalition of environmental groups, car dealers, manufacturers, and utilities pushing the bill.

Rate Counsel applies the brakes

But Stefanie Brand, director of the Division of Rate Counsel, told lawmakers to slow down because the bill puts too much of a burden for building the requisite infrastructure on utility ratepayers. Brand indicates they will foot the cost of developing up to 1,300 charging stations, as well as funding a rebate program to incent consumers to buy plug-in vehicles.

The bill lays out a plan to build as many as 1,300 public-charging stations across the state and hand out up to $300 million in rebates to those who buy cars over the next decade. It does not spell out where the funds for those rebates will come from, other than $20 million a year diverted from revenue the state is expected to receive once it rejoins a regional initiative to combat carbon pollution from power plants.

The legislation also allows, but does not mandate, the state to increase a surcharge on utility bills to pay for the rest of the rebate program. That fee, known as the societal benefit charge, raises up to $500 million a year.

$10 billion and counting

“We can’t do the whole thing on the backs of the ratepayer,’’ Brand told legislators, noting her office is currently working on utility filings asking for about $10 billion from ratepayers for other worthy programs — solar, energy efficiency, gas main replacement, storm hardening, and potentially new subsidies to keep nuclear power plants open.

Brand argued there already is a competitive private sector trying to build the infrastructure for electric vehicles, so why should ratepayers have to subsidize the cost through their utility bills. Ratepayers also should not pay for rebates to buy cars, which many could not afford themselves, she said.

“It’s an enormous transfer of wealth in the wrong direction,’’ Brand said.

Frank argued otherwise. “The private sector ain’t doing this, folks,’’ she said, adding the state needs to strike a balance between public-sector financing and private investment to address range anxiety about zero-emission vehicles. Drivers worry that they will run out of juice before recharging their vehicles.

Garden State falling behind

Jim Appleton, director of the New Jersey Coalition of Auto Retailers, noted that the state is lagging behind commitments to convert to zero-emission vehicles under a clean-car plan it adopted with California and other states. This year, only 0.4 percent of new-car sales were plug-in vehicles, he said. Under the program, 4.5 percent of sales were supposed to be EVs, he added.

Several manufacturers of equipment to install hardware and software to build the infrastructure praised the bill, saying it would help vault the state’s efforts to transform the transportation sector.

The two committees only had the legislation up for discussion yesterday, and both chairpersons did not indicate when the bill would come up for consideration.

“It’s just not moving,’’ lamented Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who backs the bill with certain amendments.

With all 80 members of the Assembly up for election next fall, the timeframe for getting the bill through appears to be narrowing. Some advocates fear lawmakers will not take up a measure that could boost utility bills in a year when they are up for election, particularly with other energy initiatives pending that could do the same.