Opinion

California must put brakes on VW’s EV plan

A California Air Resources Board technician tests diesel emissions of a 2013 Volkswagen Passat at CARB’s lab in El Monte in 2015. Air board staffers were pivotal in uncovering a massive diesel pollution scandal. As part of its court-approved settlement, Volkswagen is designating a “Green City” to promote nonpolluting electric cars, and has tentatively chosen Sacramento.
A California Air Resources Board technician tests diesel emissions of a 2013 Volkswagen Passat at CARB’s lab in El Monte in 2015. Air board staffers were pivotal in uncovering a massive diesel pollution scandal. As part of its court-approved settlement, Volkswagen is designating a “Green City” to promote nonpolluting electric cars, and has tentatively chosen Sacramento. New York Times file

The California Air Resources Board needs to put the brakes on Volkswagen’s plan for spending the $800 million settlement of its diesel emissions scandal.

The board — or CARB — admitted earlier this year that the disgraced automaker will be allowed to use the settlement to make a profit. That’s bad enough. But Volkswagen shouldn’t also get to decide where to build Zero Emission Vehicle charging stations in California, sidestepping CARB’s intent of serving disadvantaged areas. Let’s not forget that Volkswagen is paying the fine after it was discovered the German automaker intentionally equipped 11 million of its vehicles with software that was used to cheat on emissions tests.

The decision on where charging stations will be built is crucial if Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to meet his ambitious goal of putting 1.5 million electric vehicles on state roads by 2025. California won’t get there unless charging stations are available at apartment buildings, grocery stores, movie theaters, shopping centers and parking structures in neighborhoods throughout the state.

The biggest challenge is building that infrastructure in disadvantaged communities, where investments won’t pay off as big. CARB knows it, and so does the governor. So CARB called on Volkswagen to spend 35 percent of its settlement on chargers in low-income communities.

Volkswagen’s proposal technically meets that goal, but it totally misses the point.

The company wants to put the stations in disadvantaged communities — but primarily alongside freeways and state highways. It’s great for future high-end EV owners who want to jump off the freeway and pick up a charge, but it does nothing for low-income residents needing a charge while going about their business in their communities. Imagine what it would be like for drivers now if gas stations were only located at freeway interchanges and on major highways.

CARB is taking public comment on Volkswagen’s proposed plan until April 12. Here’s ours: Require Volkswagen to meet the intent of the guidelines and put chargers in communities where busy people can use them in their daily lives.

Volkswagen plans to spend $200 million over four, 30-month time periods. It would take $120 million of that $200 million in the first 30 months and invest in building charging infrastructure. Given that charging stations cost about $60,000 a pop, that will build a lot of chargers in California.

CARB must see that the stations aren’t just built in tony communities such as Palo Alto, Beverly Hills and Saratoga, but also in the poor neighborhoods of Fresno, San Bernardino and Bakersfield, which tend to have greater pollution problems.

Despite President Donald Trump’s trashing of climate change regulations that would have encouraged the sale of electric vehicles, the technology is on the verge of breakthroughs that will make them cheaper and capable of traveling greater distances with even fewer emissions. Smart consumers will make the choice.

Electric vehicle sales grew by 30 percent in 2016, but they still make up less than 5 percent of all car sales. To make electric the future of auto traffic, it’s crucial that the infrastructure be available to all.

California can provide a model for creating the infrastructure to make it all work. CARB can jump-start the transition by forcing Volkswagen to build a fair share of charging stations in the neighborhoods of disadvantaged communities.

The money isn’t charity, after all.

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.

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