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Stimulus Should Help EVs, Environmental Justice, Advocates Say

Electric vehicle advocates hope to see federal aid focused on more structured incentives to expand the growth of the technology as the nation seeks to recover from the economic damage wrought by COVID-19.

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol
Imagine a buffet of new incentives to encourage drivers to trade in old gas guzzlers for electric cars.

This is one scenario that supporters of electric vehicle growth would like policymakers to explore as they put together plans and spending proposals to guide the nation out of an economy rocked by the novel coronavirus.

Proposals like this one have gained some added traction on Capitol Hill, and the idea of an infrastructure-geared federal package this summer — intended to not only jump-start the economy, but also move it into particular directions — could check other boxes related to sustainability and economic equity.

“We really want policies that will deliver, not only a sustainable recovery, but an equitable one, particularly as this soaring unemployment is reaching approximately 30 million here in the U.S. alone,” said Jeanette Shaw, senior director of public affairs at Forth, an electric vehicle advocacy group, during a Forth-organized webinar Tuesday. “We know [the coronavirus economic downturn] disproportionately has affected marginalized communities, and communities of color.”

Advocates say stimulus funding could be structured to encourage the increased development of EVs across all uses through incentives like tax credits, rebates and other mechanisms.

“As Congress is thinking about, 'How do we stop the bleeding, help cities and individuals directly with tax relief and unemployment insurance?' we also have to think about what things look like coming out of a recession, in a way that works for the climate crisis and works for clean transportation, and all sorts of clean energy investment,” said Jonathan Levy, senior vice president of business development at EVgo, and a former official in the U.S. Department of Energy and the Obama White House, in some of his comments during the webinar.

During the Great Recession, a program known as the Car Allowance Rebate System — more endearingly called Cash for Clunkers — helped to spur the purchase of millions of new cars by offering incentives for consumers to get rid of their old cars. Advocates would like to see similar public-private partnerships emerge structured around incentives for EVs, a policy proposal which could serve as an “escalator for zero emission vehicles,” Levy said.

“That’s a tremendous leverage opportunity. But the government isn’t doing this alone. Rather, you’re inducing the additional private-sector investment,” he added.

Cash for Clunkers was a $3 billion public spend for a roughly $13 billion of economic impact. An updated program should establish clear objectives, and be structured in a way to give the most reward to buyers who may be low-income and purchasing a new or used electric vehicle.

Efforts like these not only help to retain and grow jobs in the clean transportation economy, which employed 3.4 million workers prior to the downturn, but offers a chance for environmental policy to move the needle with regard to environmental justice.

“We can’t go back to ‘normal,’” said Roman Partida-Lopez, environmental equity legal counsel with the Greenlining Institute. “Since, back when things were normal, we already had severe economic inequalities."

“Normal was a big part of the problem. Our goal must be to make the world a better place for everyone. Because if not now, when?” he added.

The economic collapse initiated by the COVID-19 crisis presents a chance to restart it with a firmer footing in sustainability and economic justice. However, how much — or how little — of that agenda sees realization is yet to be known.

“Do I think we can get all of these things we’ve been talking about today through this Congress, and this administration? No, I do not. Do I think we need to try? Yes, I do,” said Levy, calling attention to the Trump administration, which has blocked or turned back clean energy policies like withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.