Electric vehicle policy support is surging; now we must build the infrastructure


On the heels of several successful transportation and clean energy policies in the U.S., the recent Paris Climate Accord upped the global ante for support of electric vehicles (EVs). In parallel to the sweeping accord, the International Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Alliance, which includes eight U.S. states, Quebec, and four European nations, announced that it will strive to make all new vehicles sold in its jurisdictions zero emission by 2050.

Buoyed by direct and indirect policies like the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, California’s S.B. 350, the federal Clean Power Plan, and on-going grid modernization efforts in New York (Reforming the Energy Vision), California, Hawaii, and elsewhere, EVs are increasingly viewed as the most promising alternative to petroleum and diesel-fueled transport.  The growing momentum further supports this fact for a brave future of accommodating autonomous vehicles on the nation’s roadways.

The increasing surge of EV policies and state support build on long standing low and zero emission policy in California, led by the California Air Resources Board and made more poignant by Governor Brown’s Executive Order requiring that the state adopt 1.5 million ZEVs by 2025. New York City and a number of West Coast cities, including Los Angeles, have made strong pledges to electrify significant portions of their fleets. Meanwhile, many investor-owned utilities are also working to electrify their fleets and increased coordination between the Edison Electric Institute, the Department of Energy’s EV Everywhere program, and the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management promises to continue to develop EV-enabling policies.

Yet, despite all of these powerful signals and overarching goals, policy norms to support EV infrastructure have not matured. Although EVs and “smart charging” infrastructure represent a major step forward for our clean energy and transportation future, there is a dearth of policies that support a deep and broad network of EV chargers. Such a network will be critical to ensure the integration of intermittent renewable generation and the reduction of transportation sector emissions. An infrastructure that can coordinate EV charging with grid signals will allow our nation to incorporate a greater percentage of renewables and distributed energy resources into our energy mix, while making our aging grid infrastructure more flexible and resilient. To that end, laws and rulemakings (and accords) that require emissions reductions and/or increased penetration of renewables should be understood to benefit EVs.

As EV charging business models evolve to meet this emerging market, there has been a lack of robust infrastructure investment, leaving the burden of both market policies and financing with automakers and government agencies. In California, the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has recently authorized ratepayer funds to support infrastructure development, in part because it believes that there may well be a charging market failure. 

The need for sustainable funding for charging infrastructure–especially publicly available direct current fast charging (DCFC)–is particularly acute.  DCFCs are critical for deeper penetration of electric vehicles, including EVs with larger batteries and longer ranges, as the short charge time most closely approximates the type of on-demand fueling that the gas station model has made drivers expect.

The CPUC has just approved the infrastructure applications of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, with a decision on the first phase of Pacific Gas and Electric’s application likely by summer.  The three programs could result in over $1B in ratepayer investment in charging infrastructure over the next 5 years.  While only Pacific Gas and Electric’s application addresses the critically important DCFCs, the impact of this infusion of investment and potential for replication could have an outsized effect on infrastructure policy and economics across the country.

With utility roles evolving within the framework of grid modernization and distributed resource growth, investment in new revenue streams that benefit the grid and decrease emissions is a natural fit for utilities. 

To adequately enable the broad scale-up of electric vehicle adoption, it is essential to have multi-stakeholder collaboration and increased investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This support will also have the direct benefit of enabling a more dynamic and resilient power distribution system.  The future is incredibly bright for clean energy and electric vehicles – now we need to make sure we have the infrastructure to support this all-important paradigm shift.

Ashley is director of Government Affairs and Public Policy at Greenlots.