While Wildfires Blaze, California Is Making Two Important Decisions to Get Us off Fossil Fuels

It’s time for environmental policies that fit the scale of the problem.

Update: On August 27, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission approved Southern California Edison’s program unanimously. In addition, the California Air Resources Board unanimously adopted the at-berth rule on the same day. These two decisions are victories for clean air in California.

This week, while climate impacts blaze through California and we breathe the dirtiest air in the world, a single investment by a California utility could dramatically alter the landscape for electric vehicles (EVs). The California Public Utilities Commission is deciding whether to approve the largest investment by a single American utility in electric car charging stations — and it’s notable not just for its size, but also in where the money is going.

The proposal put forward by Southern California Edison — one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, spanning a massive geographic area throughout Southern California — comes at a critical juncture in the fight against the devastating consequences of air pollution and climate change. The proposal would inject $436 million to fund roughly 37,800 charging ports in Southern California, which will be vital infrastructure for Californians in the nation’s car capital to shift to zero-emission vehicles. Earthjustice represented vehicle experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists in this utility commission proceeding.

The program could help solve a major piece of the puzzle in California’s transition to zero emissions vehicles: how to charge EVs for renters. Over 40% of households in California rent their homes, a number that hovers 10% higher than the national average.

The new program being considered by California’s Utility Commission will put 30% of their charging stations in apartment buildings. It’s time to say goodbye to the days when homeownership was a de facto requirement for families interested in buying an electric car.

While affluent communities that tend to be heavy on single-family homes have seen higher rates of car charging infrastructure, progress in disadvantaged communities has lagged. These communities have often borne the brunt of California’s air quality crisis and paid the price with their health, and we need to deeply invest in them.

The new make ready program from Southern California Edison will concentrate 50% of its funding in these communities, which will mean 11,000 or more charge ports in disadvantaged communities. The proposal also requires that 30% of all new construction charging ports be in disadvantaged communities, which will add another 5,000+ charging ports in communities that need relief from high levels of pollution. Adding charging in these communities will allow more families to go electric and reap the benefits of the significant incentives currently available to kick their combustion-based vehicle.

While some significant hurdles remain to making electric vehicles more prevalent in disadvantaged communities, this program overcomes a hefty initial barrier: a place to charge these vehicles. Ultimately, the $436 million program and 37,800 charging ports in Southern California program will provide a massive boost to California’s efforts to get millions of electric vehicles on our roads by 2030.

In another win for communities living in the shadow of transportation pollution, the California Air Resources Board will be voting on a rule this week to cut ship pollution when ships dock at California’s major seaports. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest in the country, handling most of the goods coming into the country across the Pacific Ocean, and the pollution from these ports and those up north like the Ports of Oakland and Richmond are devastating to neighboring communities.

The new “At-Berth” rule will mandate that ships at these ports plug into shoreside power, allowing ships to turn off their engines that burn dirty diesel and bunker fuel in favor of electricity. The regulation will also allow compliance by using alternative pollution capture systems too. Importantly, the rule will close an earlier loophole in port pollution regulations that exempted oil tankers and auto carriers. These exempted ships make up over half of the emissions of ships docking in California’s ports, and the loophole left communities like West Oakland, Richmond, and the harbor area of Los Angeles suffering. Hundreds of lives will be saved from this technology: The rule is predicted to save California over $2.4 billion in avoided premature deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits.

These are tough times to be a Californian. We’re fighting the COVID-19 pandemic while extreme wildfires blaze and heatwaves ripple through our state. We’re in the doldrums of an acute recession, losing 90,000 clean energy jobs alone in the pandemic. It’s time for environmental policies that fit the scale of the problem.

What we do now at this inflection point to tackle the dual threat of deadly air pollution and climate change will influence our health and basic quality of life in the years to come. Fossil fuel interests are lobbying hard to keep us tethered to the old ways of powering our state. But California can make two significant decisions that set us on the path to kick combustion. Let’s hope California choses the health of us and our planet this week as our state tackles these two important decisions.

Based in Los Angeles, Adrian works on clean air, clean energy, and healthy communities issues as a deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice's Right to Zero campaign. Follow him on Twitter @LASmogGuy.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.

A man charges an electric car at home before a family trip in Washington state.
A man charges an electric car at home before a family trip in Washington state. (THOMAS BARWICK / GETTY IMAGES)