Electric vehicles for the rest of us

June 18, 2014

Californians, like the country as a whole, are driving less and less, helping curb dangerous tailpipe emissions. But with many forces at play, including a growing population, we can’t expect to reach our state’s climate goals by just coasting in cruise control.

For this reason, California isn’t waiting for the federal government to take the lead on climate change. We have already taken steps to cut pollution from power plants, similar to those President Obama is now proposing for the nation. But cars, buses, and trucks still represent the largest source of air pollution in California—and the best opportunity to dramatically reduce our impact.

We’re gaining traction with a homegrown initiative called Charge Ahead California, led by Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for Clean Air, Environment California, The Greenlining Institute, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Launched in 2013, the campaign is working to put one million electric cars, trucks, and buses on the road in the next ten years. But first, we had to debunk the myth, advanced by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the Orange County Register, and the Manteca Bulletin, that financial incentives to purchase electric cars had become “a gravy train for the 1 percent.”

A Movement Takes Shape

Charge Ahead California fits within a larger statewide movement pairing action on climate change and air pollution with efforts to promote strong local economies. The coalition behind it brings together electric vehicles advocates from leading conservation groups with those speaking up for social, economic, and environmental justice and clean air in diverse California communities. Among these partners, there was consensus that we can do a lot more to expand access to electric cars for the 99 percent, particularly low-income people and communities of color who likely find them out-of-reach.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown announced support for the goal of one million electric vehicles in his annual State of the State Address. And State Senator Kevin De Leόn introduced the Charge Ahead California Initiative bill, SB 1275, putting in place consumer rebates and other incentives needed to accelerate progress toward the million electric vehicles goal. In May, the bill passed the Senate with a strong bipartisan majority, and has moved to the Assembly, where support also appears to be strong.

With the introduction of the bill, our community of supporters grew. Many in the business community stepped in because of the clear economic benefits of expanding access to electric vehicles: for example, a dollar saved at the pump creates 16 times more jobs than money spent on gas.

The Charge Ahead bill includes promising benefits for low-income Californians. Provisions of SB 1275 strengthen and expand existing rebates for buying electric cars, increase access to clean cars in disadvantaged communities, and make it easier for fleet managers to replace polluting trucks and buses with clean electric ones. Low-income Californians who retire old, polluting cars will receive additional rebates, which they can either put toward further reducing the cost of an electric car or use for public transit passes or car-sharing programs.

Making the Shift

Not only did we have a communications imperative to change the narrative on electric vehicles, there was an actual political and moral need to do this too. Electric vehicles aren’t just playthings for the well-heeled Tesla crowd. Zero and near-zero emission trucks would be a vast improvement over the diesel trucks that belch asthma-inducing fumes in communities that have suffered for too long from dangerous air pollution. Op-eds by respected environmental justice leaders like Margaret Gordon and Rey León helped illustrate this.

Fortunately, when we clean up air pollution, everyone benefits. Legislation like SB 1275 means a cleaner commute for all Californians, whether or not you actually purchase a zero-emission car. The irrefutable nature of this message has meant the bill moved through the California Senate with relatively few opponents.

Charging Ahead

California is already leading the way when it comes to clean cars. In fact, one in three electric vehicles sold nationwide is sold in California. As others look to us for climate and environmental solutions, the benefits of the Charge Ahead model will extend far beyond state borders.

The outlook for SB 1275 seems good. But one achievement we can already claim is unraveling the myth around electric vehicles and class. Far from being toys for the rich, Charge Ahead California is proving how an electric vehicle future benefits everyone.

Marla Wilson