Utilities Commission Poised to Give a Jolt to Electrification of California’s Transportation System

Update/1/11/2018 – The commission unanimously approved the projects 5–0 on January 11, 2108. Read about the decision below:

On Thursday of this week, the California Public Utilities Commission will decide the fate of approximately $42 million dollars of priority transportation electrification infrastructure projects all across California. Submitted approximately a year ago, these applications from our investor-owned utilities like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric are huge steps forward to seriously address deadly air pollution and climate pollution in California; this stands in stark contrast to the Trump Administration’s placation of fossil fuel interests. If approved, these projects send a strong signal that California is serious about transportation electrification.

The genesis of these applications was California’s passage of Senate Bill 350. This landmark law requires utilities to meet clean energy goals and specifically to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification.” The law directed the utilities to invest in this cleaner and sustainable vision for California’s transportation system. But, before it can do so, it needs approval from California’s Public Utilities Commission.

The priority review projects represent the first scalable, major opportunity to reduce climate pollution and toxic air pollution through electrification in communities across California. Research shows that transportation-related ozone and particulate matter cause twice as many deaths in California as traffic-related accidents, and communities of color and low-income communities often bear the brunt of this transportation pollution.

Earthjustice has had the privilege of representing East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in this proceeding. These environmental justice organizations were amongst the first groups in the nation to push for zero emissions freight equipment in their communities — the ultimate solution to deadly diesel pollution in neighborhoods near our freight hubs like ports, warehouses, and railyards. Experts from both these organizations have filed testimony in this proceeding establishing the urgency for electrifying our transportation. In a particularly salient part of this testimony, we heard the following:

We need zero emission technology infrastructure now. Our communities are in a state of emergency due to the health effects of living near the BNSF intermodal facility and dealing with all the truck and rail traffic it brings. Investing in infrastructure to support zero emission technologies is an opportunity to demonstrate that our community and communities like ours are equal citizens and deserve to be protected from air pollution just as everyone else does.”

Ericka Flores, Community Organizer from the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

And, utilities have caught onto the desperate need to provide relief from toxic air pollution communities are breathing. Here is a video that one of the utilities — Southern California Edison — put together to explain why it is pursing this path.

Critical projects that will be reviewed by the Commission at the hearing on Thursday include:

  • $3.5 million investment in electric equipment at the Port of Long Beach (an example inter-agency collaboration between Southern California Edison, the California Energy Commission, and the Port);
  • $4 million SCE project to build DC fast chargers for electric vehicles in disadvantaged communities;
  • $4 million bus pilot program allowing SCE to provide grants for electric buses to transit agencies in their service area;
  • $2.2 million PG&E project for electric school bus renewables integration, building charging infrastructure focused in disadvantaged communities;
  • $1.7 million PG&E project to building technology to reduce idling at truck stops, such as electric refrigerator containers to keep groceries cold while trucks are parked;
  • $3.3 million PG&E demonstration project for medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles, for example, installing “make-ready charging infrastructure” for electric FedEx or UPS delivery trucks; and
  • $2.4 million for SDG&E to install charging infrastructure for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and forklifts at the Port of San Diego.

Now, this is only the first round of projects that utilities seek to fund. Per the Commission’s direction, the utilities have proposed much larger and more substantial projects that will provide approximately $1 billion dollars in electrical infrastructure to charge trucks, buses, cars and other vehicles throughout California.

This all sounds great, so why is there even debate? Unfortunately, the entrenched natural gas industry is actively seeking to derail this level of investments and limit the ability to fund electrification of larger vehicles like trucks and buses — which is essential for communities impacted by pollution. These proponents of combustion technologies place their own interests in selling more methane products over the interests of communities seeking zero emissions technologies.

Even with this dissent, the overwhelming consensus from the environmental, health, and environmental justice groups has been support for this investment in the future of our lungs and planet. Taylor Thomas, the Research and Policy Analyst for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and a Long Beach resident, stated this in her testimony:

No, my community will not settle for cleaner combustion technologies. Our residents are clear about what they want to see and understand that we can invest in zero emission technologies now.”

The Commission’s priority review projects represent an important down payment, showing California’s level of seriousness in cleaning up our transportation system.