By Jeff Allen

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Pacific Power and Portland General Electric have proposals to expand electric vehicle charging pending before Oregon’s Public Utility Commission. These proposals are required by Senate Bill 1547, passed in the 2016 Legislature, which directed utilities to accelerate transportation electrification.

These plans from Pacific Power and PGE deserve broad public support — and they are getting it. Testimony in support of these plans has included letters of support from eight automakers, eight private charging companies and several environmental and public interest organizations.

A couple of charging companies are trying to undermine support for these plans, claiming unfair competition. However, anyone who’s tried to drive their electric car from Bend to Portland knows that current chargers are simply inadequate and unreliable. That’s why eight of our charging company members — direct competitors to those critics — have written in support of the utility plans. As they recognize, the best way to grow a competitive market for electric vehicle charging is to grow the electric vehicle market itself. Oregon currently has about 16,000 registered electric vehicles. When we have a few hundred thousand electric cars, there will be more room for competition among chargers; but first, we need the basic infrastructure that will support that many electric cars.

Utility efforts to accelerate the use of electric cars, trucks and buses will clean up our air and dramatically reduce climate pollution. Electric cars emit no tailpipe pollution, and the Union of Concerned Scientists found that electric vehicles in our region have the CO2 emissions equivalent of a 94 mpg car — if such a thing existed.

There are also strong economic arguments to support these utility plans. First, contrary to critics’ claims, ratepayers will not be subsidizing electric vehicle drivers. Quite the opposite: More electric vehicles will mean lower utility bills for everyone, whether you choose an electric car or not.

Why? Electric cars buy a significant amount of electricity, generating revenue for utilities, but tend to charge at night when there is a lot of cheap excess power. In other words: They are a profitable market for utilities to serve.

One California study found that each electric car was worth between $2,778 and $9,799 to the utility and its ratepayers over its lifetime. Electric cars also have large batteries that are increasingly being used to provide other valuable services to the grid, even storing excess wind or solar power to be released into the grid later as needed.

Electric vehicles have broader economic benefits, too, returning money to owners that would otherwise be spent on imported gasoline. One study found that every dollar shifted out of gasoline spending produces 16 times more jobs. Each electric car also brings a $7,500 federal tax credit to Oregon, and can increase total Oregon gross domestic product by as much as $2,000 a year, with corresponding increases in jobs and tax revenue. Oregonians spend about $6 billion a year on gasoline, so the potential benefits of this “electric dividend” are enormous — and not just for the families that buy electric vehicles.

As Oregon moves toward a transportation system that increasingly relies on electric vehicles, our electric utilities have a key role to play. Electric utilities know how to provide reliable service, and how to support new customer needs, whether it’s for an air conditioner or an EV charging station. Regulated utilities also have the patience to build infrastructure, even when it may take 10 or 20 years to pay back. That’s why we counted on them to bring power to our rural communities decades ago, and that’s why we need them today to build the backbone of a public charging network.

— Jeff Allen is executive director of Forth, a nonprofit organization working to transform the way we get around.

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