Electric vehicle
Credit: Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection / Creative Commons

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Clean transportation advocates are declaring measured support for Massachusetts electric utilities’ proposals to spend $470 million on programs to help the state reach its ambitious goals for electrifying transportation over the next decade.

“These proposals will go a long way toward building out the necessary charging infrastructure to meet our targets,” said Sarah Krame, an associate attorney with the Sierra Club. “We are largely very supportive.”

The proposals from major utilities National Grid and Eversource, submitted to the state public utilities department over the summer, focus primarily on expanding and improving electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Together, they set goals of installing nearly 14,000 new stations. They also include provisions that would put electric buses on the road, support new electric car-sharing programs, and fund workforce training initiatives.

“This is our most comprehensive, most aggressive program proposed to date,” said Rishi Sondhi, manager of clean transportation for National Grid.

Transportation emissions are one of the major challenges Massachusetts faces as it attempts to go carbon-neutral by 2050. Currently, there are about 36,000 electric vehicles on the road in the state, but the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker has set ambitious goals for increasing that number: The state’s Clean Energy and Climate Report, released at the end of last year, calls for 750,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

There are, however, still major barriers to accelerating electric vehicle adoption, including up-front cost, lack of consumer education, fears about the range of electric vehicles, and inadequate charging infrastructure. It is these last two obstacles that the utilities’ proposals are taking aim at. 

“Utilities have a unique role to play where they can fill gaps where the private market just hasn’t caught up yet,” Krame said.

Both proposals include several components that defray the costs of installing chargers, for public and workplace lots as well as residential properties. 

For public and workplace customers, both utilities would expand their existing “make-ready” programs, which cover the cost of any upgrades — such as new wires, transformers, or meters — needed to make the connection between the grid to the charging stations. Single-family homeowners would be offered $700 toward the cost of any necessary improvements to their own electrical system. The incentive goes up to $1,400 for properties with two to four units.

“This puts a lot of resources into the make-ready concept,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of clean energy nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance, which is generally supportive of the plan. 

In public and workplace settings, the utilities would also take on half the cost of the charging equipment itself. If the project is in an area identified as an environmental justice community, the utilities would pay for the equipment entirely. 

Residential buildings with one to four units would receive $300 for each smart charger installed and enrolled in a managed charging program. For larger multi-unit dwellings in environmental justice areas, the program would cover the full cost of each charger; outside of these neighborhoods, half of the charger price would be covered. 

The ambition and aggressiveness of these plans are admirable, Chretien said. 

“It meets a very important issue head-on,” he said. “There’s no question that we need more charging stations.”

Eversource’s plan allocates $2 million to support car-sharing programs using electric vehicles in environmental justice communities, much like the Good2Go service that launched in Boston this spring. Modeled after familiar services like ZipCar, electric vehicle sharing lets drivers rent a car for a short period of time at an hourly rate. Good2Go offers tiered pricing to make the service more accessible to low-income residents.  

An influx of money from Eversource could help such services, which often depend on grant funding to get started, get to a financially sustainable place, said Susan Buchan, director of energy projects at clean energy nonprofit E4TheFuture, which oversees Good2Go.

“Grants run out,” she said. “This is a way to get a stable car-sharing program funded and off the ground.”

National Grid’s proposal includes a plan to buy up to 300 electric school buses for districts in environmental justice areas. The utility would cover the difference between the cost of a conventional diesel bus and the electric version, a gap that can hit $175,000, Sondhi said. Electric buses cut back carbon emissions but, just as importantly, they would reduce the release of particulate matter, airborne pollutants that have been associated with increased cardiovascular and respiratory disease. 

Clean transportation advocates are particularly praising the elements of the proposals focused on environmental justice neighborhoods. 

“Electrifying those sectors is really important because of the disproportionate impact that those pollutants have on environmental justice communities,” Krame said. 

National Grid’s proposal includes a plan to offer discounts of three to five cents per kilowatt-hour to people who charge their vehicles at off-peak hours, such as overnight, when there is relatively low demand on the grid. Charging at these times could have an impact on both greenhouse gas emissions and long-term energy prices because it is generally only in times of high demand that the dirtiest and most expensive power plants come online. 

Currently, about 500 users are signed up for National Grid’s off-peak discount program, which is set to expire in 2022. The current proposal would extend the initiative to 2025 and aim to bring as many as 11,000 new vehicles on board. 

“That’s something that we like that we think could be expanded even further,” Chretien said.

The two proposals are currently pending at the state department of public utilities. The process of hearings and making any requested changes is likely to take several months. Sondhi expects final approval to come sometime in mid-2022. 

For supporters, these new initiatives can’t come soon enough. 

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Krame said, “and not that much time.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.