NYC Jump-Starts Electric Car Project

As everyone knows, most New Yorkers don’t drive.  Fortunately, we have a walkable, bikeable city and a plethora of public transit options.  However, the truth is that 44 percent of New York City households do own cars and drive them.  While this figure is much lower than the national average of 90 percent of households, our fair city still has an opportunity to present an even greater example of efficiency, conscientiousness and forward thinking.

The good news is that New York City is poised to provide a needed jolt of energy in the fight against transportation-related pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  And NRDC strongly supports reducing these environmental threats in New York.

Last week, speaking before a crowd of environmentalists, political hangers-on and auto-industry innovators, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced New York City’s installation of the first Coloumb Chargepoint Networked Charging Station for electric vehicles.  As part of a pilot program in nine cities across the United States, more than 100 ChargePoint charging stations will be installed throughout the New York City area this summer.

Mayor Bloomberg described the country’s heretofore sluggish electric car growth as a “chicken-and-egg” problem, in which consumers don’t buy electric cars in part because of the scarcity of charging stations – and there aren’t many charging stations due to low demand.  Installing ChargePoint stations, perhaps before there is even significant demand for them, will lead to greater electric car use and serve as a model for other cities.

The pilot project is part of the ChargePoint America program, and much of its $37 million cost is financed by grants from the federal stimulus bill and the California Energy Commission.  The program will install 4,600 home and public charging stations nationwide by October 2011, and is expected to lead to increased electric car use in the pilot cities – with the rest of the country to follow. 

The city hopes to lead by example, beginning by adding electric vehicles to its SCOUT (Street Conditions Observation Unit) fleet, which covers every city street each month to report street conditions such as potholes, litter and cave-ins.  In recent years, New York has undertaken other measures to reduce gasoline use – most prominently, and with NRDC’s help, the city now has over 3500 gas-electric hybrid taxis on the streets, with the goal of an all-hybrid taxi fleet by 2012.  According to a study commissioned by the Mayor’s Office, an electric car charged on the New York City grid would lead to 70 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions than would a conventional gas vehicle.  Electric cars have no tailpipe emissions, but the electricity production required to power them can increase greenhouse gas emissions at local power plants.  However, confining emissions to a small number of power plants rather than diffusing them among thousands of tailpipes provides an opportunity for future emissions reductions through increased use of renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.

As NRDC expert Luke Tonachel has stated, “Getting these clean vehicles on the road is an important part of a more comprehensive strategy to cut our oil dependence and curb global warming.”

But a surge in the use of electric cars will have benefits beyond cleaner air and less energy use.  Secretary Donovan highlighted the American jobs the program will create in the short term, given that each charger installation requires at least three workers: one to build the charging station and two to install it.  Furthermore, the expected increase in electric-car demand should also create, according to Mayor Bloomberg, “an entirely new industry” and lead to more jobs in auto production.

With air quality declining and greenhouse gas emissions increasing, the electric car’s time has come.  New York’s promotion of electric vehicles can set an example of innovation and sustainable living that will benefit health, the economy and the environment.