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How Large Cities Can Advance a Renewable-Powered EV Infrastructure

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The recent Chicago Auto Show was a great place to see new car models and automakers' futuristic designs. Until recently, few automakers displayed electric vehicles. But this year, most showed clean electric and hybrid cars, and showed off their cool next-gen concepts. How can Chicago and Illinois strategically position themselves to be electric vehicle leaders as innovative car technologies move forward?

Howard Learner discusses how his city and state can lead by example when it comes to EVs. Photo credit: Nicolas Nova/Flickr Creative Commons

The “city that works” needs an electric vehicle infrastructure of smart policies and modern, fast-charging stations powered by clean, renewable energy. Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are working to advance broadband as leading infrastructure for our economic competitiveness. Likewise, they should advance key infrastructure needed for innovative electric vehicle technologies to thrive. The results: improved mobility, cleaner air, economic growth — and lower carbon pollution and less foreign oil used. Here are some key steps forward:

Create a robust network of fast-charging stations. Let's rapidly build out our electric vehicle charging system with locations at both public areas and private parking lots and garages. This addresses an impediment to electric vehicle purchases: drivers' fears about running out of power. For cash-strapped Chicago and Illinois, private investors can help build charging stations in high-traffic locations such as shopping malls and parking garages. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds can support additional charging stations where there are gaps.

Make those charging stations solar-powered. Let's build charging stations powered by solar during the day and wind energy at night to make sure that overall pollution is reduced. Power prices are generally highest on hot summer afternoons when the most polluting plants run on the margin to meet peak electricity demand from cranked-up air conditioners and fans. That's when solar energy is most available. If charging stations are powered by solar, the pollution equation works well.

What helps make that happen? First, planning, zoning and utility regulatory policies can support locating charging stations in places with good solar access. Second, improved “net metering” rates enable charging stations to sell valuable extra solar-generated electricity back into the grid. Clean energy should power clean tech transportation. Discount off-peak electric rates for charging: Wind power is plentiful at night and provides “no pollution, no fuel cost” energy. Because Illinois has surplus nuclear and wind power running at night, off-peak prices often are very low.

The Illinois Commerce Commission should approve discounted off-peak charging rates for electric vehicles to reflect low nighttime electricity market prices and available, clean wind-power generation. Discount rates will incentivize owners to charge between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when there's an electricity supply glut, instead of during daytime peaks. It's a win-win-win-win when electric vehicle owners charge at low-demand time—save money with discounted rates, reduce pollution, help utilities level out energy use and add sales for wind power and nuclear power generators. We all benefit if electric vehicles charge when the power equation results in less pollution.

Federal and state tax incentives are spurring electric vehicle purchases. The $7,500 federal tax credit and up to $4,000 Illinois rebate accelerate electric vehicle purchases. Continuing stable, consistent incentives helps build the market and supports manufacturing, which needs predictability for transitioning to new clean car models and technologies. Keep the electric vehicle tax incentives going, and keep them steady.

People are excited by new electric vehicles. They're cool, high-tech, reduce pollution and use less foreign oil. Places with modern fast-charging infrastructure supporting the flow of electric vehicles into our businesses, homes and garages will benefit. Those without will fall behind. Let's get Illinois' electric vehicle policies and charging infrastructure right so we can charge into the future.

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