An electric bus in Chicago. Credit: David Wilson / Creative Commons

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A new paper presents several proposals to improve the chances that Black, Latinx and other higher-risk communities see the benefits of electric vehicles.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the need to electrify the nation’s transportation system in a way that benefits Black, Latinx and other communities bearing the brunt of air pollution, a consumer advocacy group says.

The Citizens Utility Board of Illinois in a new paper calls for making sure polluted, lower-income neighborhoods have access to affordable electric vehicle car, bike and scooter-sharing services. It also suggests making electric vehicle ownership more accessible by leveraging the growing number of used electric cars that are being swapped out after being leased.

The paper, the third in a series on transportation electrification, focuses on Chicago but frames the proposals as nationally relevant.

“You’ve got to make sure the folks most vulnerable from an income and pollution point of view are prioritized” in transportation electrification plans, said CUB executive director David Kolata. 

The pandemic’s health impacts are thought to be exacerbated by air pollution, with one Harvard study linking a greater risk of dying from COVID-19 to prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air.

While some areas have seen transportation-related pollution drop during the pandemic, that relief hasn’t been felt everywhere. Chicago saw only a 1% reduction in particulate matter in April, according to studies cited in CUB’s report. Black and Latinx communities near shipping hubs, power plants and other pollution sources are less likely to see relief from stay-at-home orders. 

Kolata said there is “an emerging consensus” among “strange bedfellows” that “as we’re going to do transportation electrification, we do so in a way that prioritizes low-income customers, makes sure they benefit right off the bat.”

In January, CUB, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Consumer Law Center and Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, put out a joint statement calling for transportation electrification with a focus on benefiting those most burdened by energy bills and air pollution. 

“We need to make sure we target programs that really can provide pollution remedies right away,” Kolata said. “If a bunch of rich people buy Teslas and charge when they should, that’s going to benefit all customers [through greenhouse gas reductions and grid benefits], but that’s not addressing the local pollution issue.” 

Overcoming barriers 

In polluted and lower-income communities, many people can’t afford a car or don’t have a garage where they could charge an electric vehicle, so owning one themselves is not an option. 

“I have a [leased] Chevy Volt which I love” but will soon turn in for another model, Kolata said. “You have a vehicle that won’t have many miles on it, it will last a long time, and generally at low or no cost it could be provided to low-income families.” 

Once families have an electric car, fuel and maintenance costs are much lower than for a standard engine. 

“Today there are inexpensive and used EV options, but most people still think of EVs as very expensive and don’t think to look for a used EV,” said Anne Evens, CEO of the organization Elevate Energy that promotes affordable and clean energy. “There are similar barriers to understanding charging infrastructure, batteries, and lifetime costs. An EV ownership program will need to understand and address these barriers if they want to access new markets such as environmental justice communities.”

If more electric cars are circulating, more DC fast-charging stations would need to be situated in communities. CUB proposes the city allow people to charge at public fleet management depots, which are often located in or near communities at higher environmental risk. The paper also calls for placing public charging stations in “transit deserts” that lack good access to public transportation. 

A holistic approach

CUB’s paper also endorses electrifying school buses and city buses, especially those that run through environmental justice communities. CUB and other advocates have long called for increased electrification of public bus fleets in general, but special incentives could be offered for routes that pass through certain areas, the paper suggests. The state of Illinois is planning to invest in electric school buses with up to 10% of its $109 million settlement from the Volkswagen lawsuit, and the city of Chicago is slowly rolling out a bus electrification program.

CUB notes that people in higher-risk, lower-income communities are more likely to work in essential, frontline jobs that can’t be done from home. Hence many are still using public transportation during the pandemic. Electric buses should also be outfitted with fresh air flow and other safety measures, the paper says. 

CUB’s paper and other proposals have also long called for utilities to offer time-of-use pricing to facilitate efficient charging when overall electric demand is low. Such pricing benefits all customers by reducing peak demand and the need to invest in more generation. And rising or falling energy bills have a disproportionate benefit or risk for lower-income communities where people pay a higher portion of their income toward energy bills. 

“If cars charge randomly, you’ll have to spend more to meet peak demand, and prices and bills for consumers will go up,” Kolata said. “The nice thing about transportation electrification is if you do this right with smart policies, you can actually lower bills and rates for consumers.  Electric vehicles are almost like a distributed energy resource.” 

CUB’s proposals echo components of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), proposed clean energy legislation backed by environmental, community and labor groups that was stalled by the pandemic and now unlikely to see movement before next year. CEJA calls for utilities to be required to spend $50 million a year on “beneficial electrification,” especially for vehicles and buses. The costs would be folded into utility operating expenses, passed on to ratepayers and subject to cost-benefit tests similar to energy efficiency investments. The utility would not be able to make a profit on these investments, Kolata noted. 

Kolata said that the proposals could be implemented without legislation, by regulatory agencies like the Illinois Commerce Commission and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and entities like the city of Chicago and the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. But given the multitude of financial, infrastructure, technology and social components of such initiatives, he said it is ideal to have a framework and mandate enshrined in legislation. 

“If we think about this creatively and holistically, let’s make sure on a macro level we have policies that lead to lower rates for consumers, and make sure we are designing our programs and incentives such that low-income and environmental justice communities can benefit,” Kolata said. “I do think at the end of the day, fully smart holistic policy will require legislation.”

On the ground 

Little Village, a Mexican immigrant and working-class community on Chicago’s Southwest Side, is heavily impacted by pollution from transportation, since it is nestled between highways, railroads and a shipping canal, and home to much heavy industry. Many residents are stridently opposed to a planned logistics and shipping facility being built on the site of a former coal plant. 

Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), said she supports proposals to give residents more access to electric vehicles and the benefits of transportation electrification. But the health impacts of such proposals are small compared to the risk posed by pollution from industry and scores of trucks in the neighborhood.

“Access to the technology and electrification are all important, but it has to be within the larger context of what is the community already dealing with,” Wasserman said. “We can’t just substitute in the electrification of vehicles without talking about the larger issue of how Chicago is going to grow around the movement of goods, being a hub for transportation.” 

CUB’s report notes the large share of emissions released by trucks, and the growing viability of electric trucks. “E-truck and commercial fleet charging depots can be incentivized to locate where the existing grid has sufficient capacity for their high loads, so investment in new distribution infrastructure can be avoided,” the paper says. “These locations are often in low-income areas where de-industrialization has occurred — exactly the neighborhoods where there is a vital need for both non-polluting vehicles and new jobs.”

Wasserman, however, said that trucks pose safety risks beyond pollution, and the community doesn’t want any more trucks, electric or otherwise. She added that amenities like an electric vehicle car-sharing service or charging stations raise concerns about gentrification, since they may draw new residents to the area. 

“I’m all for these conversations,” she said, but stakeholders in communities need to be deeply involved so policies are crafted with “an understanding of the realities on the ground.” 

Juliana Pino, policy director of LVEJO, said she wants to see transportation electrification move forward, and supports passage of CEJA, which also increases incentives for solar including specifically in targeted communities. She noted that CEJA was drafted with input from residents in environmental justice and other communities during more than 100 community meetings.

“A just transition of the transportation industry away from diesel and other fossil fuels must be driven by policies like these that come from the most impacted Black, brown, economically disadvantaged Illinoisans, and must benefit those communities and their health,” she said. “We support drastically reducing toxic diesel pollution in neighborhoods like Little Village dealing with its worst impacts, and creating meaningful career opportunities for these same communities in the expansion of clean transportation.”

Kari Lydersen

Kari has written for Midwest Energy News since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.