COVID makes it clear N.J. must be healthier — and EVs can help

In today’s COVID-19 environment, it has become clear that we need to renew our dedication to making New Jersey a healthier and more equitable state.

The pandemic is showing us how much harder a disaster hits those with already compromised health and a lack of economic security. People with such preexisting conditions as lung and heart disease, people of color and those in our cities are proving to be more likely to get sick from the coronavirus and more likely to die from it, too. For example, a recent analysis by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people living in areas with high levels of air pollution had higher death rates from the disease.

Dirty air has been assaulting our lungs for decades. Last August, a Journal of the American Medical Association study concluded that even a small increase in the ozone levels of one’s surroundings could result in health impacts equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.

In New Jersey, much of our air pollution is concentrated in urban neighborhoods and those that are adjacent to ports or major roads. The overwhelming source of the dirty air comes from what comes out of vehicle tailpipes. Getting rid of those emissions significantly improves air quality. A mile driven in an electric vehicle is nearly twice as clean as a gasoline-fueled mile. The message from this is clear: The sooner we replace fossil-fueled cars, trucks and buses with electric vehicles, the faster we can clean our air — and the safer and healthier we will be.

In New Jersey, that’s not as far off as a lot of people think. In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law establishing formal state goals for electric vehicles, statewide charging infrastructure and a multiyear rebate program for the purchase of electric vehicles.

Now, the state Board of Public Utilities is reviewing proposals for needed investments in charging stations, which will jump-start our transition to electric vehicles. Essential to reaching the goals New Jersey’s recently adopted Energy Master Plan sets for reducing pollution is making sure this transition happens quickly and comprehensively. Proposals submitted by Atlantic City Electric and Public Service Electric & Gas to install the needed infrastructure are crucial to rapid development of New Jersey’s EV market and should be supported.

Replacing fossil-fueled vehicles with electric ones will reduce electric costs for everyone by increasing the amount of electricity that is used in the electrical grid and spreading the utilities’ fixed costs of the electric grid over this higher volume of electricity. This is not a theory, nor is it something that will happen in the distant future. In California, the country’s leading EV market, electric customers are already seeing lower costs.

Finally, let’s remember that, in helping to clean our air, electric transportation will improve our health and reduce health care costs for all residents.

For New Jersey’s electric vehicle infrastructure to be built in a way that maximizes utility customers’ benefit, it must be done as a partnership between private sector and utility companies. Utility company involvement is needed to ensure electric vehicles safely, optimally and cost effectively “plug into” our grid and reach areas where the private sector will not invest, while keeping the costs of charging electric cars at or below what we pay for gasoline.

Smart utility investments and the development of EV infrastructure will play an important role in our state’s economic recovery, because leveraging utility dollars will unleash significant private sector investment. In 2019, nearly 3.4 million people worked in the clean energy economy, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report. We can grow that number and bring more of those jobs to New Jersey. Gov. Murphy recognizes this too and has included ChargEVC on his Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, formed to advise state leadership on economic matters impacted by COVID-19.

Other states have already moved to jump-start the electric vehicle market. In all of them, electric utilities and the private sector work together. ChargEVC — an organization made up of private-sector companies, utilities, automotive dealerships and community, justice, labor and environmental advocates — understands that, in New Jersey, too, utilities and private entities will need to work together.

COVID-19 is a global crisis, and in crisis there is always opportunity. Let’s seize this opportunity to finally take dramatic action to clean our air and grow a robust New Jersey economy that creates clean-energy jobs and lowers electricity costs.

Pam Frank is CEO of ChargEVC, a not-for-profit coalition of diverse stakeholders that includes retail automotive dealers, utilities, consumer and equity advocates, environmental and labor organizations and technology companies.