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Through its much-discussed Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) effort to modernize our electric system for the 21st century—we’ve blogged about it here and here—the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) is well positioned to put the pedal to the metal on the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in the Empire State. The PSC is already encouraging utilities to speed development of EV charging infrastructure, something that can reduce electricity bills for customers, improve utilities’ bottom lines, and help integrate renewable energy resources onto the grid, by charging up vehicles when these plants are producing plenty of electricity and injecting energy back onto the system from those vehicles when electricity is in shortest supply. (NRDC’s new report, Driving Out Pollution: How Utilities Can Accelerate the Market for Electric Vehicles, can tell you more about how that all works.)

New York is wisely participating in the Zero Emission Vehicle program under the federal Clean Air Act, which requires automakers to gradually increase the percent of electric-drive vehicles sold in New York and other participating states. And through the ChargeNY initiative, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), New York Power Authority, and Department of Environmental Conservation are working together to advance a goal of building 3,000 new EV charging stations. Still, there’s much more the PSC and the state’s utilities can do to accelerate EV adoption and unlock their full potential.

Doing so will create a host of public benefits. Here’s just a short list:

A more stable climate. Right now, EVs create at least 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline-powered cars. In New York, we found a gasoline car would have to get 125 miles a gallon to emit as little carbon pollution as an electric car. As New York doubles the amount of renewable energy on the grid over the next 15 years through the State’s Clean Energy Standard, carbon reductions from EV use will continue to grow.

Better public health. Gasoline- and diesel-powered cars and trucks are responsible for 42 percent of the state’s smog-forming nitrogen oxides emissions. Replacing these liquid fuels with electricity will cut this and other pollution that threatens public health.

Lower electric bills for consumers. Most electric car charging happens when those vehicles are parked at home for the night and when there is excess generation capacity in the electricity system. Charging EVs during hours when the grid is underutilized increases utility revenues without commensurate increases in costs, putting downward pressure on electricity rates that can lower bills for all electricity customers.

Growing revenues for utilities. At a time when utilities worry about the so-called utility death spiral—lower revenues due to decreased demand and grid defection—EVs can create a new and important revenue stream to support the grid operations on which we all depend.

Local economic benefits. Using more EVs will benefit the state’s economy as we stop sending more than $20 billion out-of-state and sometimes out-of-the-country each year to import transportation fuels.

To realize all of these benefits and ensure that EV adoption occurs as rapidly and effectively as possible, there’s much more the PSC and the state’s utilities must do:

To begin with, New York’s utilities must plan to fast-track the deployment of electric vehicles. As part of REV, these utilities are required to submit a joint plan for integrating distributed energy resources, like rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles, onto the system. NRDC is working with the utilities on this process and is providing input on their plans for facilitating EV adoption. The utilities should seize this opportunity to coordinate their planning (by, for example, developing shared processes to forecast EV penetration so that the rest of the system can be designed to meet the needs of a growing EV fleet), and to develop a set of shared set of principles for advancing EV infrastructure and deployment programs. The utilities should focus on the areas where their actions will have the greatest impact. They should, for example, ensure EV charging infrastructure is deployed in the areas that are currently underserved, so as to reduce potential owners’ so-called range anxiety—the fear of running out of juice and having no place to fill up. The utilities plans should include targeted investments in disadvantaged and low-income communities that can suffer disproportionately from tailpipe pollution and who can benefit from the low cost of driving on electricity. Making EV charging infrastructure available in a wide variety of places like office parking lots, shopping malls, and public and private parking garages will allow owners to charge up even if they don’t live in detached houses with private driveways, and help EVs support the integration of renewable resources.

While including EV programs in the current overall planning process is an important start, planning alone isn’t enough. Utilities also need to develop specific programs for infrastructure build-out. Because there isn’t yet any requirement that utilities do so, the PSC should adopt one, and create a new proceeding focused specifically on implementing these EV programs to offer the public important chances to provide input. (This Sierra Club letter, to which we signed on, urges the PSC to do just that.) We’re also urging the utilities to develop a variety of different innovative programs so that we can test out what works best. Such programs should go beyond just infrastructure development. They should also include plans for customer education and engagement, and new designs for electricity rates that encourage customers to plug in during the times when doing so is most efficient (for example, at times aligned with renewable power generation).

Around the country, despite historically low gas prices, electric vehicles are on the verge of taking off in a big way. This spring nearly 400,000 people plunked down $1,000 each to reserve a $35,000 Tesla Model 3, even though that car isn’t expected to roll off the assembly line until late next year at the earliest. And that’s just one example. Up in Boston recently, NRDC and the air quality group NESCAUM brought together Northeastern utility executives and state environmental and energy officials (including those in New York) to discuss the opportunities and challenges involved in utility build-out of EV charging infrastructure.

Through the REV, New York State and its PSC have been driving important changes in the way New Yorkers will get our electricity in the coming years. With the right proceedings and policies in place, the PSC can ensure that one of those changes is how we drive.

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