NJ earns kudos for efforts to electrify transportation sector

Incentives and other promotions are encouraging users to switch to zero-emission vehicles, seen as key to achieving Murphy administration’s clean-energy goals
Credit: (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Tesla cars being loaded onto carriers at the Tesla electric car plant in Fremont, California

After years of criticism from clean-energy advocates that the state is moving too slowly, New Jersey is now getting more credit for electrifying its transportation sector.

In a pair of reports issued this week about state efforts to transition to zero-emission vehicles, New Jersey ranked 10th among all states in promoting electric vehicles in one study and fourth in another. The state has established a goal of having 300,000 zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2025.

The analyses suggest a number of states are moving aggressively to remove barriers to encourage drivers to use electric vehicles, a strategy that is also being adopted by the new Biden administration at the federal level.

Those federal policies are moving forward as states begin to ramp up efforts to address climate change and lower carbon pollution contributing to global warming. Across most of the country, as well as in New Jersey, the transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Electric vehicles key to cleaner air

In New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan and its Global Warming Response Act, electric vehicles are widely viewed as integral components in achieving 100% clean energy by mid-century and to reducing carbon emissions by 80% below 2006 levels by 2050 as part of New Jersey’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

The Murphy administration has taken a number of major steps to achieve those goals in its first term. The state approved ratepayer-backed subsidies worth roughly $300 million annually to keep New Jersey’s three nuclear plants from closing in 2018. The state Board of Public Utilities is now beginning to review whether to retain those subsidies for another three years with a decision expected in April.

Meanwhile, the BPU last month approved the first utility-driven program to ramp up spending to build out the infrastructure for electric vehicles. Public Service Electric & Gas got the green light to invest $166 million to build the charging infrastructure over the next six years. The BPU is expected to approve a smaller, scaled-down plan put forward by Atlantic City Electric at its next meeting later this month.

In addition, the Murphy administration committed $100 million to help the state transition to electric vehicles using money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a multistate settlement with Volkswagen stemming from the auto manufacturer’s cheating on emissions tests for its diesel vehicles.

Most of today’s electric vehicles are responsible for significantly fewer emissions overall than their gas-powered counterparts, and many have lower lifetime ownership costs, thanks to low fuel and maintenance expenses. The higher initial purchase cost and lack of access to vehicle charging stations remain barriers to many households and fleet owners.

“Transitioning to electric vehicles is vital for the climate and reducing costs for households and businesses,’’ said Bryan Howard, state policy director at the American Council on an Energy Efficient Economy, and the lead author of a report that ranked New Jersey 10th among states trying to electrify transportation.

GM backs off gas

According to the ACEEE, the leading 30 states are embracing this transition, but many more are just starting even as automakers are preparing a burst of new electric models. General Motors announced last week it would stop making gasoline-powered cars, vans and sports utility vehicles by 2035.

In determining the ranking, the study identified a number of states that have taken steps to promote EV use, many of which have been adopted by New Jersey as a result of a new state law enacted in January 2019. They include planning for more EVs and charging options; incentives such as rebates and tax credits; and utility funding to spur EVs and EV charging in low-income areas and environmental-justice communities.

In its report, ACEEE found that California is far and away the national leader in enabling the use of electric vehicles. In another analysis of state progress in transitioning to EVs, Plug in America agreed, establishing it as the national leader in this area.

In its report, Plug in America, an organization promoting electric vehicles, ranked New Jersey’s effort as the fourth-best in the nation — behind California, Massachusetts and Oregon. In both the ACEEE report and the one from Plug in America, virtually all of the states ranked in the top 10 also have opted to follow California’s zero-emission-vehicle program.

New Jersey earned a high ranking after it passed a 2019 law with added incentives for using electric vehiles, according to the Plug in America analysis. With that law, the state now offers $5,000 rebates to eligible customers to purchase electric vehicles, along with previous provisions giving tax credits to purchase zero-emission vehicles and allowing the cars to use HOV lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey, said the two reports suggest the rollout of electric vehicles is accelerating in a big way. “2021 is hopefully the year of the electric vehicle,’’ he said, while adding it is important the state keep up its efforts to promote zero-emission cars.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was less optimistic. “It is disappointing that New Jersey is not where it should be when it comes to EVs in the country,’’ he said. “We need to accelerate our equity programs to make sure that EV benefits are targeted to underserved and overburdened communities.’’