According to the Environmental Protection Agency, around 95 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in cities may come from motor vehicle exhaust. With this substantial contribution to global warming, drivers are being encouraged to look into electric vehicles (or EVs). But potential buyers may ask questions like whether they’re affordable, how they’ll charge the vehicles, or how suited New Jersey is for electric vehicles. Knowledgeable on all these topics is Cathleen Lewis, the E-mobilities manager at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, who runs all things EV.
For the past year, Ms. Lewis has overseen goals, programs, and initiatives involving EVs, including the upcoming EV target of 333,000 light-duty EVs on the road by 2025. According to Ms. Lewis, the state is currently home to 64,300 EVs—a number that has been significantly rising in correlation with scaling up the ChargeUp program, which promotes the use of zero emission vehicles through incentive programs.
(The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
Can you talk a little bit about the environmental benefits of driving an EV?
Right now the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of New Jersey is the transportation sector; about 40% of our emissions come from the transportation sector. So if we are really looking to reduce emissions, which obviously leads to healthier communities and a healthier environment in general, then we need to be tackling transportation emissions, which means moving to zero-emission vehicles, and in particular EVs.
How is New Jersey suited for EVs in regard to charging stations?
We have been working with our partners at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to expand on that, and also to focus on particular needs when it comes to charging. For instance, DEP’s “It Pays to Plugin” program has focused on both corridor and community charging. Corridor charging is when you are on a travel corridor, so think of the turnpike or Route 1, and then community charging is finding chargers within a community.
Our focus has been on electrifying government fleets. So our clean fleet program not only works to encourage the government to purchase electric vehicles, but also to put in public charging stations at public locations.
And then we have worked on our MUD Program, which is multi-unit dwellings. People who do not live in single-family homes have an additional burden when it comes to using electric vehicles because about 80% of charging happens at home. And so making sure that people in multi-unit dwellings have access to charging is not only important for hitting our end goals, but it’s also important on an equity level: making sure that those folks have that ability.
And then lastly, our EV Tourism Program looks to put chargers in tourist locations to encourage people who have EVs to come visit New Jersey.
What benefits or incentives are there for people to switch to electric vehicles?
The ChargeUp program is the primary incentive for purchasing electric vehicles, and that program was created by the legislature. That program started as a flat $5,000 point-of-sale incentive. It is really important because it again gets to the equity issues, because $5,000 sounds great (or $4,000 sounds great, which is the proposal for Year Three), but if you have to wait for that check to come in the mail, you may not be able to make a purchase. But that $4,000 off of the cost of your vehicle–which can significantly reduce your monthly payments–that may be the difference between you being able to purchase an EV or not. So having that point-of-sale incentive is not only really important for encouraging people to buy EVs, but also encouraging low- and particularly moderate-income people to purchase those EVs. The incentive in Year Three is proposed as up to $4,000 for vehicles that are under $45,000. For vehicles that are between $45,000 and $55,000 the maximum incentive is $2,000. That is based on $25 per e-mile [per mile of the vehicle’s Environmental Protection Agency rated all-electric range]. So the more efficient your vehicle is, the more money you get. And essentially, any vehicle that gets over about 200 miles is going to hit the maximum.
Speaking of low to moderate incomes, places in New Jersey where people of color are the majority of the population—for example, Newark and Camden—often see very disproportionate amounts of air pollution. So can you speak a little bit to how people in those communities can still benefit even if they may not be able to afford EVs?
You know, we’re just talking about one program that is about personal vehicles, but there are multiple programs. For instance, we have our clean fleet program that encourages local governments, including in places like Camden, to purchase EVs, which helps them on several fronts: A) It makes the government fleet that is driving around cleaner, and so that lowers emissions in those areas; B) It’s really important for people to see EVs out there. So you go, “huh, clearly the EVs can drive around all day on a single charge, so I know I can make my 20-minute commute in and back with the same charge,” and understanding that is a really important piece of this.
But there are also programs for electrifying the transit fleet. Parts of our funding go to New Jersey Transit and we’re working with them on electrifying buses.
We also have what’s called a straw proposal: We look at different policies for how we should be utilizing repair money. In any of the places that have environmental justice zones in particular, the emissions are particularly bad, because there are more of those medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. Each of the utilities has a program that helps incentivize public charging, so we can figure out how to electrify those medium- and heavy-duty fleets. So working to ensure that there is funding for charging, and that we’re creating an adequate infrastructure, are important pieces to making sure emissions in those areas are reduced.
I think that the other piece is there are lots of people who don’t own their own vehicle. So DEP has been working through its “It Pays to Plug” program to encourage micro mobility, meaning EV ride and car shares.
How can communities seek out grants?
They can go to our website, and NJcleanenergy.com/EV, and all of our programs are there. And they can find out information about the ChargeUp program, the clean fleet program, EV tourism, and the MUD program.
Can you speak a little bit about the affordability of electric vehicles?
This is a conversation that’s changed a lot over the last two years, and we anticipate that it’s going to change a lot more over the next two years. Electric vehicles have often been seen as very expensive. I think that if you look at a majority of the electric vehicles that are on the road, you’re looking at vehicles that are somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000, depending on what model you take. That’s why the EV law requires that we not provide incentives to vehicles over $55,000: because we wanted to make sure that we were focusing on what we refer to as “incentive-essential folks”. The idea is that if you are purchasing a vehicle that is over $55,000, you’re making that choice, and using your money how you see fit. You aren’t necessarily going, “Well, if I had $5,000 more, I might go to an EV.” There are still EVs that are around $30,000. Those EVs are out there, and there are some more coming on the market.
We’ve also seen from the Biden administration a real commitment to bringing EV manufacturing to the United States. Right now, the Big Three automakers make a limited number of EVs. They have all committed to building EV-only plants in the United States; that will improve the supply chain, and it will lower production costs. And so as you see more EVs on the road, and you see more EVs in the market with lower production costs, you should start to see more affordable EVs out there.
How can someone who does not own a vehicle still advocate for and make use of the EV programs in New Jersey?
I think there are lots of different ways. I think that working with local governments to create some E-bike shares, and advocating for ride share and car share companies to invest in EVs, is a great way to do that. And we’ve seen success in other states when Uber and Lyft have made EVs available to their drivers. Encourage your local governments to apply for these programs, like the clean fleet program, and if you live in a multi-unit dwelling, encourage your landlord or your association or whomever that is to invest in chargers now, and encourage workplaces to have charging as well. Because we know in the future, they’re going to be an amenity that needs to be there. All of those things will help to encourage more people to get EVs and make people more likely to make that switch when they have the option.
What would you say to someone deciding between an electric versus a gas-powered vehicle?
You know, I think that one of the things that people need to really think about is how they’re using their car a majority of the time. I think that we oftentimes get stuck on this idea of, “Well, once a year, I take this really long trip, and it works for me every day, except for this one time of year.” And so if something works for you 95% of the time, then that should probably be your go-to, especially if it’s going to save you money and it’s going to help out the environment.
I also think it’s important for people to understand that the federal government has made a huge investment in federal public charging infrastructure and that money is going to be out on the street later this year. Then for the next five years [the government will be investing] in building those charger networks, and they are going to be required on all the major corridors and interstates. So those pieces are going to be less and less of a concern.
It is important to recognize that 80% of your charging is going to happen overnight; it’s going to happen in your home, probably. So yes, you need to be aware of where public charging is, but that is not going to be where you’re getting most of your charge from.
And then the last piece: one of the huge benefits of EV ownership is the lack of maintenance that has to happen. You generally have to replace tires and brakes [when they wear out] and that’s about it. So it reduces hassle and it reduces costs on the maintenance side as well as on the fuel side. And, you know, we have incentives; we have the point-of-sale incentive here in New Jersey. There are also federal tax incentives that you will get at the end of the year. So there are a lot of great ways to save money when it comes to EVs.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory (www.civicstory.org) and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project (www.SRhub.org).