06/12/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In San Diego and Elsewhere, Cleaner Driving and Cleaner Air within Sight


Recently, Politico announced what we at Sierra Club have long known: across the country, King Coal is on the ropes. In a long-form piece detailing the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign strategy and history of success, the numbers spoke for themselves. Sierra Club and our allies have, through grassroots organizing, lobbying, litigation, and media engagement, secured the retirement of one dirty coal-fired power plant every 10 days on average for the last five years--and are on track to have secured the retirement or announced retirement of one third of the coal fleet by year's end. Within five years, Beyond Coal and allies plan to have the entire U.S. electric sector on a cleaner safer path as we work, the article notes, to "electrify everything."

On this goal--to "electrify everything"--Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle Campaign is already hard at work. This is because we know a widespread switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is one key way to slash oil use and greenhouse gas emissions. EVs are already cleaner than standard cars just even when using today's electricity sources to power them, and they'll become even cleaner as we move toward a 100% clean energy electrical grid.

To get more people driving EVs, we need to make them more well-known, affordable, and accessible. We're working to do just that through public outreach and policy advocacy. Recently, we've turned some of our attention to how utilities can accelerate EV adoption by providing incentives to consumers like cheaper rates for EV drivers, discounted rates for off-peak use, and rebates on EVs and EV chargers. Utilities and regulators can also play a key role in speeding the transition away from oil. With the right policies in place, they can help support large-scale projects to deploy EV charging infrastructure. In California, our recent engagement has been focused on the California Public Utilities Commission, where there's been a vibrant discussion over separate plans by San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison to deploy some 60,000 total EV charging stations across the state.

Last week, Sierra Club, along with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and a diverse set of public interest groups, automakers, labor unions and EV charging companies, submitted a proposed settlement to the Commission to accelerate the deployment of EV charging stations across San Diego. The settlement, if adopted, would bring the state one step closer to meeting its own ambitious EV goals, complying with federal air quality standards, and improving access to clean transportation options.

Under the settlement, SDG&E would add about 5,500 chargers to the grid by the end of the project's five year term. The charging infrastructure would be installed at workplace and multi-family homes buildings across SDG&E's service territory.

By siting EV chargers at workplaces, and multi-family homes, the program targets two critical market gaps. Workplace charging can be scarce, and yet it is the second most likely place for EV drivers to charge their cars (after their homes). Similarly, apartment dwellers often lack access to an outlet or garage, limiting EV ownership in higher density urban areas that could most benefit from cleaner transportation.

At charging sites, EV drivers would have access to a range of charging equipment options and rates, promoting competition and growth in the EV charging service industry. At the same time, the prices would maximize fuel cost savings for EV drivers. The pilot program has a built-in price signal that should encourage customers to charge their EVs at night (when energy prices are low) and in the mid-afternoon (when renewable energy is plentiful). This is a win win -- all utility customers stand to realize health benefits and cost savings from cleaner cars, greater integration of renewable energy sources, and improved grid management. To make sure EV customers in SDG&E's service territory get the full benefits of vehicle electrification, Sierra Club and other groups are also working to move this utility and others to 100% clean energy.

Our advocacy, along with that of many allies, also aims to ensure that a more diverse set of people and communities benefit from EVs. Under the settlement, SDG&E would deploy at least ten percent of the charging stations in disadvantaged communities while facilitating the expansion of electric car sharing in order to increase access to clean transportation.

In addition to Sierra Club and SDG&E, the proposed settlement was negotiated and signed by Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenlining Institute, California Coalition of Utility Employees, Plug In America, Environmental Defense Fund , Center for Sustainable Energy, Green Power Institute, ChargePoint, NRG EV Services, Smart Grid Services Siemens AG, KN Grid, CALSTART, General Motors, Honda Motors, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a decision on the proposed settlement later this year.

As we turn our attention toward spurring other utilities to expand EV infrastructure and incentives in states from California to Florida, we'll use a smart, strategic combination of grassroots organizing, legal work, policy analysis, and collaboration with a diverse mix of partners. Working together to "electrify everything"--starting with cars--will help the world move away from dirty fuel extraction of all kinds (including offshore drilling and mountaintop removal coal mining), cut carbon pollution to help tackle the climate crisis, and reduce unhealthy air pollution that makes it harder for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, to breathe.

Joe Halso is a Sierra Club attorney and Gina Coplon-Newfield directs the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicles Initiative.

Photo Above: NREL employee Kevin Donovan plugs his electric vehicle into one of the dozens of charging stations in the NREL parking garage. Photo Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL.