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Nation's Largest Utility Ramps Up Investment in Electric Vehicles

Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves much of California, hopes to cut carbon emissions and its own fuel bill by purchasing more electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in the country by customer count, is filling out its corporate vehicle fleet with electric vehicles.

As California’s governor pushes for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, PG&E announced last week that it plans to put about $100 million toward the purchase of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles for its work fleet during the next five years — about one-third of its fleet purchases. That will include cherry pickers that lift workers up to power lines, emergency vehicles that can provide power during emergencies and other vehicles the company uses in its operations.

While the investment fits in well with the state’s push for reduced greenhouse gas emissions — Gov. Jerry Brown is leading the charge on the climate change-focused “Under 2 MOU” while scientists project dire consequences for the state if carbon emissions can’t be curbed quickly — there’s also a monetary motive for PG&E’s announcement.

“We are seeing full payback on the increased initial investment in less than five years in many cases,” PG&E Senior Director of Transportation Services David Meisel said in the statement. “In addition to the fuel savings, we're seeing dramatically lower vehicle emissions and a better on-the-job experience for our crews.”

The move represents a doubling of the company’s current purchasing rates for electric and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. According to the press release, about 15 percent of PG&E’s fleet is made up of those vehicles now. The ramped-up investment will mean adding another 750 such vehicles to the company’s 14,000-unit fleet.

Among the vehicles PG&E wants to put on the road are cherry pickers, or “bucket trucks,” that can operate with the engine off. Currently workers who need to be lifted up to power lines need to keep vehicles idling in order to have power flowing to machine controls. But electric vehicles will have the ability to provide power to the machines without the trucks being on.

The company also has electric vehicles that can provide power during emergency situations. One such truck provided power to a church in Calaveras County where displaced people were sheltering during a huge, destructive fire in September, according to the statement.

To accommodate the rising number of electric vehicles, PG&E has installed 80 charging stations across the state. The company also has 32 compressed natural gas stations and one liquid natural gas station, many of which are open to customers.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.