By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow
The Oregon Legislature is likely to vote on the proposed Clean Electricity and Coal Transition bill in the next few days (either as HB 4036 or as SB 1547). Although the most controversial parts of the bill focus on transitioning Oregon off of coal and increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard, the bill addresses a number of other energy-related issues. Among these is a provision that aims to accelerate transportation electrification. So what is transportation electrification, who wants it, and what would this bill do to advance it?
What is transportation electrification?
Transportation electrification refers to the gradual shift away from gasoline-fueled vehicles towards vehicles that are fueled instead by electricity. It’s worth noting at the outset that although this sounds like a shift from old technology to new technology, it is absolutely not. Energy.gov provides a great timeline of what has happened with electric cars, but here are some highlights: the first electric successful electric car appeared in the U.S. in 1890, and by 1900, one-third of cars on the road were electric. But the debut of the more affordably priced Ford Model-T in the early 1910s contributed to an explosion of sales and the corresponding infrastructure—gas stations—to support gas-fueled vehicles. One of the biggest barriers to more widespread deployment of electric vehicles today is that existing infrastructure favors gas-fueled cars because there are many more gas-stations than there are electric plug-in stations to charge electric vehicles; in short, owning a gas-fueled vehicle is simply more convenient. Thus, transportation electrification efforts are largely focused on developing that infrastructure.
Who wants transportation electrification?
Transportation electrification is a popular idea for both utilities and environmentalists, so it’s no surprise that a provision addressing it appears in a bill negotiated as a compromise between both sets of interests. On the utility side, Edison Electric Institute (an association representing investor-owned utilities across the country) published a report in 2014 explaining the benefits of transportation electrification for utilities and recommending ways that utilities can lead in developing that infrastructure. The report noted that energy efficiency efforts will continue to cut into utilities’ retail sales, but that transportation electrification could increase load (demand), ensuring sales long into the future. In addition, the report recognized that the government is likely to mandate increased electric vehicles in the future, and that utilities should therefore by at the forefront in shaping the market for transportation electrification.
For environmentalists, a move towards electric vehicles is vital for reducing transportation emissions. The transportation sector is Oregon’s largest-emitting sector, contributing 39% of the state’s total emissions. Although electric vehicles will not be carbon free until the electric grid is carbon free, electric vehicles in Oregon annually generate roughly 1,500 lbs. of CO2 equivalent (a number that will drop the greener our grid becomes), compared to the roughly 11,600 lbs. emitted by gasoline vehicles. Clearly, shifting to electric vehicles on Oregon’s relatively low-carbon electricity grid would be a huge step towards reducing emissions from the transportation sector.
What would this bill do to advance transportation electrification in Oregon?
The bill would require Oregon’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) to direct the state’s two large investor-owned utilities to submit applications for programs to accelerate transportation electrification. Essentially, the bill allows utilities to propose development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure projects that utilities could recover in their rate bases if the PUC determines that such proposals are prudent. A similar provision in California has resulted in that state’s PUC approving $67 million in utility spending on 5,000 electric vehicle charging stations. At the same time, the California PUC rejected a $654 million proposal to build another 25,000 stations. Clearly, the amount of charging infrastructure development that would occur in Oregon under the bill will depend on the PUC’s actions related to utility electrification proposals.
According to the parties that negotiated the proposed bill, the transportation electrification provision of the proposed bill would be an incremental step in helping Oregon develop electric vehicle charging infrastructure. I agree. Depending upon how the PUC would view the prudency of utility proposals, it may be a pretty small incremental step. To ensure a more robust transformation, Oregon should build on work already proposed in the state’s “Energizing Oregon” roadmap that includes a comprehensive and organized strategy to advance the electric vehicle market in Oregon.