COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

What will be Brown’s climate-change legacy?

Power production and transportation using carbon-based fossil fuels are the two main sources of emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

That said, while jumping up and down over climate change for many years, Californians have simultaneously malingered over the prospects of electric vehicles that substantially eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, imposing impractical approaches while private interests lay pebbles and boulders in every path, thereby assuring a slower transition to widespread adoption of cheaper electrified transportation.

When Gov. Jerry Brown goes to Paris in late 2015 to tout California’s climate-related accomplishments, he will also implicitly carry with him a message of California’s unfortunate emphasis on private control over and higher prices of electricity to be used for charging electric vehicles.

As things stand, Brown and his PUC appointees’ legacy will be to re-create the unfettered system that now operates the higher-priced oil and gasoline distribution system.

That approach will systematically shift profits into a few private hands instead of building, managing and maintaining a solid and reliable electric-charging infrastructure comparable to our utility grid. It will also surely slow any transition to otherwise cheaper electric transportation.

Will California’s approach impress an informed world community gathered in Paris concerned with achieving a more rapid adoption of electric transportation worldwide? It’s unlikely.

However, such a legacy will definitely please a few private investors, as it will ultimately lead to much higher prices paid by consumers for electricity used for transportation and a far slower transition away from the current carbon-based transportation system. Oil companies love that.

While many believe that the major barrier to electric vehicles is the oil industry, which is certainly a consideration, it is also the accommodative policies favored by the governor’s office and a California Public Utilities Commission that places heavy emphasis on nearly exclusively private, not utility, ownership of the electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

California’s current approach is a mistake for many reasons, not the least being the form and structure of ownership that is being systematically imposed on the infrastructure used for charging vehicles.

Instead of managing the availability of charging stations under a regulated-utility model, a system that has served residential and business electric power consumers well for many decades, the current trend in California is toward exclusively private control over charging stations for electric vehicles, where the prices charged for electricity will be based on business whims or the need for profit.

Note that the private interests operating charging stations typically don’t generate their own power. Instead, they rely entirely upon the regulated utilities to provide it at controlled, low prices. Then they merely sell it to consumers at much higher prices. In effect, California’s system of private control injects a profiteer middleman into the otherwise controlled public utility system.

While some propose the mistaken notion that the private markets can produce and provide electricity used for vehicle charging for less than the utilities, the reality is that adopting a model akin to oil industry gasoline stations will give rise to much higher prices for electric-vehicle transportation and profits flowing away from operating and expanding a widespread charging network.

Instead of focusing on low prices and widespread availability, the for-profit vehicle-charging system favored by the PUC will focus on a “good enough” system and serve mainly those areas where consumers can pay the price that returns the desired profit for that particular charging company. Instead of minimized prices, stockholders will demand a narrow focus on the highest possible prices and profits.

This is precisely the opposite approach that should be supported. California needs a system where charging stations are readily available, provide power at lower cost and are subject to the idea that all should have access to a resource instead of merely those are willing to pay the highest price.

A similar debate concerning how utilities should be managed took place nearly a century ago, when electric utilities were first expanding. As a result, utilities were made subject to public control and regulated prices, a system that has served to make available power to one and all at low prices.

That same approach should be applied to electric power made available for charging electric and pluggable hybrid vehicles. There is no reason to change that system except to shift profits into the hands of a few.

Unlike California, Georgia has adopted a far more progressive and consumer-friendly model for electric-vehicle charging, with utilities playing a major role in providing both the power and a reliable public-charging infrastructure at relatively low cost. In part, this may explain Georgia’s recent rise to second in the nation for the number of electric vehicles per capita.

California can and should do better. Only then will Brown have a genuine example of hope to offer the world.


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com.

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