Learner Op-Ed: Chicago should shift EV infrastructure into gear

As published in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, February 18, 2016.

The Chicago Auto Show is a great place to see the automakers’ new car models and futurist concept designs. Clean electric vehicles and hybrids have moved from the sidelines to center stage. General Motors is showcasing its snazzy new Bolt, an EV offering a 200-mile range, more headroom and less pollution. Toyota‘s test-drive track shows off its new RAV4 hybrid crossover SUV; Ford is displaying its attractive C-MAX and Fusion plug-in hybrids; and the CEO of Volvo, in a speech to the Economic Club, focused on low-polluting cars and autonomous “self-driving” vehicles for the future.

How can Chicago tap that excitement and strategically position itself to be a leader as innovative clean car technologies move forward fast? By building an EV infrastructure of smart policies and modern fast-charging stations powered by clean renewable energy for innovative clean car technologies. That will improve mobility, reduce pollution, attract interest and investment in our world-class city and reduce foreign oil use. Here are some key steps forward:

1. Location matters. Let’s continue to rapidly build out the public-private EV charging system throughout Chicago and Illinois at both public spaces and private parking areas. More charging stations in high-traffic locations will encourage more people to buy EVs and worry less about boosting their batteries to keep moving.

As EVs gain longer ranges, there needs to be a dependable charging station infrastructure on the highways between Chicago and Madison, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis. A robust fast-charging station infrastructure can alleviate drivers’ worries about running out of power. That’s a barrier to new car purchases. Tesla is stepping up. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, Daimler, Honda and other automakers, as well as Federal Express and UPS, should engage and invest to help build out this modern EV charging infrastructure.

2. The power source for charging matters. Let’s build more charging stations powered by solar energy during the day and wind power at night to reduce overall pollution. Power prices are generally highest on hot summer afternoons when the most polluting plants tend to be running on the margin to meet peak electricity demand from cranked-up air conditioners. That’s also the best time to tap solar energy. If charging stations are solar-powered, then the pollution equation works well.

How can we help make that happen? First, planning, zoning and utility regulatory policies that encourage locating charging stations in places with good solar access. Second, the Illinois Commerce Commission should improve “net metering” rates enabling charging stations to sell valuable surplus solar-generated electricity back into the grid.

Electric vehicles cut global warming emissions in half compared to similar gas cars

Wind power is plentiful and provides “no pollution, no fuel cost” energy. Because Illinois has surplus wind power and nuclear plants running at night, off-peak market prices are often very low. Nighttime EV charging helps utilities level out energy use. We all gain environmental quality benefits if EVs charge when the power equation results in less pollution.

Driving a clean-tech electric vehicle doesn’t help the environment as much if it’s charged by electricity generated by highly polluting coal plants. Clean renewable energy should power clean tech transportation.

3. Tax incentives matter. Stable, consistent incentives help build the market and support manufacturing, which needs predictability for transitioning to new clean car technologies. Let’s avoid the “stop-and-start” tax credits that, until recently, hampered wind power. That uncertainty deterred investment and held back development. Let’s keep the EV tax incentives steady.

One of President Barack Obama’s biggest successes has been re-energizing the American auto industry and spurring manufacturers to build clean cars for the future. Auto manufacturers took up that challenge. They tapped American ingenuity and creativity to develop new all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars that excite buyers and pollute less.

The Chicago Auto Show showcases many electric vehicles — large and small, with different price points and features that appeal to many new car buyers. Let’s get our EV policies and infrastructure right to charge into the future.

Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization.



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