East Bay Times
By Louis Hansen
A proposed $800 million state settlement with Volkswagen over its emission-cheating scandal could shape the highway landscape for electric vehicle drivers and boost sales of green cars in California for the next decade.
But as regulators consider the German automaker’s plan, companies and environmentalists are fighting over where the massive investment should be spent and how it can best alleviate air pollution. A decision by the California Air Resources Board is expected this month.
The settlement is expected to spark the electric vehicle market, a key to the state’s push to achieve ambitious climate change goals and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Both sides agree the settlement is a significant win for the state.
“We don’t think California will get a better deal,” said Maxwell Baumhefner, lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In late 2015, U.S. regulators discovered Volkswagen had rigged at least a half-million 2-liter diesel vehicles to pass emission tests, while still spouting unacceptable levels of pollution. As part of a settlement, the company plans to spend billions in the U.S. to build charging stations and promote electric vehicle use across the country.
In California, Volkswagen agreed to spend $1.2 billion through two separate programs: $381 million for pollution mitigation and $800 million in an infrastructure trust fund. How that trust fund is spent remains a flash point for environmentalists, lawmakers and EV charging companies. It will help define California’s electric vehicle corridors — placing charging stations along highways and into communities — for years to come.
Proponents say the settlement will promote jobs and help the state meet its climate goals. It may be flawed, they say, but the gaps can be addressed during the 10-year program. Some fear if this settlement does not go through, it could be scuttled by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump.
“We need to allow the program to get started,” said Brett Hauser, CEO of EV charging company Greenlots. “Let’s not stand in the way of progress.”
Opponents claim the deal could dampen competition in the charging station market and ignores poor communities most affected by air pollution.
“In order for Volkswagen to be brought to justice, they need to invest in the communities they hurt the most,” said Joel Espino, environmental equity lawyer at the Greenlining Institute.
Volkswagen submitted plans to spend the infrastructure fund in $200 million, 30-month phases over a decade to boost infrastructure and education for zero emission vehicles (ZEVs).
The first phase of the Volkswagen proposal tickets about $120 million to build charging stations — $45 million for community facilities and $75 million for a high-speed highway network — throughout the state. San Jose and San Francisco are among the five major cities earmarked for new stations at apartment buildings, businesses, and community and municipal parking lots.
It also creates a public education campaign and a green city showcase to promote sales of all brands of electric vehicles. Volkswagen said it’s optimistic that the investment will make it easier for California drivers to re-charge their electric cars and “make a material difference in adoption of ZEVs in California.”
The state aims to put 1.5 million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2025. Electric vehicle owners are more affluent than the average driver, while pollution from the offending diesel vehicles strikes harder on low-income communities — usually found near interstates and high-traffic surface roads.
Baumhefner said the program may lack some details, but the outline should propel electric vehicle sales and hasten the adoption of the technology. He said the settlement is a huge boost to state climate change goals.
Hauser said the large investment in charging stations will grow the market for electric vehicles. The settlement calls for the electricity pumps to be standardized and work with most electric and hybrid vehicles.
But not all tech companies have come on board. Campbell-based ChargePoint, the world’s largest open EV charging network, opposed the plan in federal court last year. Company lawyers argued Volkswagen’s investment will “drown out all other participants in the ZEV infrastructure market through enormous spending.”
A ChargePoint spokesman declined to comment, but the company registered its concerns in an April 10 letter to the air resources board. It wants the state to earmark at least 35 percent of the investment, above the current 25 percent goal, to disadvantaged communities.
ChargePoint added that Volkswagen plans to build mostly “high speed charging stations at highway exits rather than community charging stations at workplaces, multifamily housing, and retail stores.”
Several state lawmakers and local members of Congress also support heavier investment in poor neighborhoods.
Gustavo Aguirre, project coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said many poor, rural communities have no charging stations, discouraging residents from buying green cars. The settlement, he said, “has to be a direct investment in these communities.”