New State Effort to Ramp Up Electric Vehicle Usage

Tom Johnson | September 30, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Board of Public Utilities plans to create a $30 million rebate program to help alleviate consumers’ concerns about higher price of cleaner cars
Credit: Karlis Dambrans/Flickr
330,000 electric vehicles on NJ roads within six years?

The state is moving to tackle one of its toughest climate action goals: putting 330,000 electric vehicles on the road in New Jersey in less than six years.

In a step toward achieving that goal, the state Board of Public Utilities wants to hire a consultant to administer a program to jump-start New Jersey’s efforts to electrify the transportation sector, which now accounts for 46% of emissions contributing to global warming.

The BPU started the process Friday, a move clean-energy advocates hope will revive the state’s push to transition to cleaner vehicles on New Jersey roads. New Jersey and other Northeastern states made the commitment to comply with California’s zero emission vehicle program.

Uphill battle for electric cars

So far, the success of that effort has been mixed. Earlier this month, the Trump administration vowed to end a waiver that allows California and other states to set more stringent emission standards for vehicles. The action is likely to tie up the issue in courts for years, advocates say.

Perhaps more problematic, the state’s own efforts to convince drivers to switch to cleaner electric vehicles is slowing. This is due, in part, to growing demand for cleaner cars overseas, where they are more willing to pay more for electric vehicles, as well as continued concerns about range anxiety — the fear motorists will run of out of juice before being able to recharge their batteries.

Consumers have also been somewhat reluctant to pay the higher price for electric vehicles, a concern the Murphy administration and Legislature aim to address by having the BPU’s consultant create a $30 million rebate program — funded by a state Clean Energy Fund financed by utility customers.

Even that program faces some questions. BPU commissioner Bob Gordon called the hiring of a consultant “an essential first step in electrifying the transportation sector,’’ but voiced concerns that the rebates should not be targeted to affluent communities to help higher-income residents purchase electric vehicles.

BPU president Joseph Fiordaliso backed the proposal to develop a program for rebates, saying it marks another step forward to achieving Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050. Not only will it help reduce pollution from the transportation sector, encouraging use of electric vehicles will assist New Jersey in becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, he said.

Rebate provision slowing down bill

The steps to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles occurs at the same time a bill (S-2252) to encourage the transition to cleaner cars has stalled in the Legislature, primarily because of rising concerns about the costs of switching to a clean-energy economy. Clean-energy advocates hope it will win approval in the lame duck session after the November election.

A rebate provision in that bill, which has only cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, is the chief source of opposition to the measure. The bill also aims to ramp up installation of charging stations, including fast chargers, which cut down the time motorists have to wait to get vehicles recharged.

Still, clean-car advocates were glad to see the action by the agency. “I think it’s a good thing,’’ said Chuck Feinberg, president of New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, an organization pressing for a shift from gasoline-fueled cars to alternative vehicles.

He defended the use of rebates, noting they could be structured based on income thresholds. “It is cash on the hood at the point of sale,’’ Feinberg said, calling rebates an appropriate incentive.

Others backed the agency’s initiative. “I’d rather see $30 million (from the Clean Energy Fund) going to rebates than being used to balance the state budget,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He was referring to the more than $1.5 billion from the Clean Energy Fund that lawmakers and governors have shifted to other uses over the past decade.