Driving Force

In the race to promote fuel efficiency and lower vehicle pollution, NRDC's Roland Hwang is firmly in the lead.

Roland Hwang

For a guy who gets around mainly by bus, Roland Hwang, the San Francisco–based director of NRDC's Transportation program, sure thinks an awful lot about cars.

Hwang was a principal architect of the automotive fuel standards that President Obama announced in August 2012, which mandated that American-made automobiles get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Within five years of being fully phased in, this doubling of fuel efficiency is expected to reduce U.S. fuel consumption by 3.1 million barrels of oil a day.

The reduction in emissions would be the equivalent of seeing 85 million cars suddenly disappear from the nation’s roads. “Doubling fuel efficiency is the single biggest action this country has taken to reduce carbon pollution and oil dependency,” Hwang told NRDC's onEarth magazine in November 2012.

Yet another one of Hwang's California initiatives, Senate Bill 1275, informally known as Charge Ahead California, poised itself to be an even greater game changer. It was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2014. At an event in downtown Los Angeles two months after its passage, Hwang outlined the new law’s primary goal—putting one million zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs) onto California roads by 2025—and offered a compelling economic and environmental argument for doing so.

California is already well-known as an expensive state for industrial polluters. If you’re an oil company or some other heavy emitter doing business within its borders, you’ll pay a high price for leaving your big, dirty carbon footprints everywhere. Charge Ahead California uses these polluters’ fees to fund incentive programs—including direct rebates of up to $2,500—that are offered to prospective EV buyers and others who want to help drive California into its reduced-emissions future: disgruntled car owners who ditch their private wheels for public transit, for example, or an EV car–share membership. (To ensure that all Californians can take advantage of these incentives, eligibility for the biggest of them is restricted to low- or moderate-income drivers.)

Hwang has been instrumental in turning California into the nation's test lab for new emissions-cutting ideas. In 2002, he worked closely with state lawmakers to craft regulations that would dramatically increase automotive fuel-efficiency; so successful were the results that more than a dozen other states adopted California's standards. Emboldened by this triumph, President Obama later established a series of national fuel-efficiency benchmarks for U.S. automobiles, culminating in the 2012 mandate for 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Back then, Hwang needed to show nervous carmakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) why increased fuel efficiency made good business sense. He collaborated with the UAW on a 2010 study demonstrating how the ramped-up technology associated with increased fuel efficiency could create up to 150,000 American auto-industry jobs by 2020. These days, many of our cars boast up to 40 miles per gallon—and U.S. automakers are again competitive internationally. “Fuel efficiency is getting the U.S. auto industry back on its feet,” Hwang noted.

Credit: Geri Lavrov/Getty Images

Hwang is making a similar argument on behalf of EVs, citing the many economic benefits of meeting Charge Ahead California's goal of one million EVs on the road by 2025. Lower car payments (courtesy of the program's rebates and financing options) combined with lower fuel costs will be an immediate stimulus, as consumers find themselves with more money in their pockets. (Electricity is roughly the cost equivalent of $1-per-gallon gas). And as a 2012 study by a University of California, Berkeley economist illustrates, micro-benefits can quickly add up to macro-benefits: Among its findings is that “[o]n average, a dollar saved at the gas pump and spent on other household goods and services creates 16 times more jobs than a dollar spent on refined petroleum products.” Like that study’s author, Hwang believes that adopting EVs could create up to 100,000 new jobs for Californians by 2030.

To say nothing of the economic benefit—in the form of health-care-related savings—realized by taking one million gas-burning cars and trucks off the road. Our vehicles currently account for nearly half of the smog-forming pollution in the United States; in California, exposure to this pollution kills nearly twice as many people every year as motor accidents. According to the American Lung Association, if Californians traded in their gasoline-powered cars for EVs running on electricity that was one-third renewable, they would save up to $13 billion in health- and climate-related costs annually.

Hwang concedes that we still have a long way to go before every Californian (much less every American) steps off the gas and goes electric. But he’s happy that more than 50,000 of his fellow Californians have already made the switch, and he’s convinced that Charge Ahead California will increase numbers exponentially. After that—assuming the pattern holds—everybody else will start to come around. Or as he likes to put it: “Just like California has done in the past with catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline, and solar energy, we can once again lead the way when it comes to electric vehicles. As California goes, so goes the nation—and, indeed, the world.”

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