Charging up for a greener future for San Mateo County

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Imagine drivers of electric vehicles being able to power their vehicles from electric charging stations around San Mateo County as easily as most drivers fill up at a gas station.

Such a prospect now exists, thanks to the recent agreement between Redwood City-based Peninsula Clean Energy and the California Energy Commission.  This incentive project is the result of a $24 million partnership to support electric vehicle use.  Thousands of charging stations will be installed over the next four years, starting in 2020, with completion planned by 2023.

It is estimated that 20,000 electric cars are already in operation on local highways.  Major  growth is anticipated as the automobile industry is transformed.

Peninsula Clean Energy, San Mateo County’s official electricity provider, is a three-year-old nonprofit community choice energy program, with a mission to furnish customers with cleaner home electricity at lower rates.  PCE reports saving residents $18 million last year in utility costs in all 20 cities.

Ninety-seven percent of area residents are listed as users – or 290,000 customers.  Service is offered in cooperation with PG&E, which continues to provide the actual transmission lines.

Servicing electric vehicles represents the latest PCE commitment to cleaner air, by reducing greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.

“Expanding EV charging stations is the logical next step in our efforts to make driving an electric vehicle accessible and affordable,” explained PCE Chief Executive Jan Pepper.

Automobile manufacturers have more than stepped up to the plate in their commitment to build electric cars.  General Motors, the nation’s largest producer of conventional fuel-powered vehicles, has announced that only electric vehicles will be rolling off assembly lines by late 2023.   “Our vision,” GM reports on its website, “is to create a world with Zero Crashes (self-driving cars), Zero Emissions and Zero Congestion.”

European and Asian manufacturers are equally committed to future developments with EVs similarly in production. In early September, Porsche/Volkswagen announced the introduction of new models to compete directly with locally produced Tesla automobiles and other currently manufactured EVs.

PCE estimates that driving an electric vehicle saves over $1,200 a year in maintenance and fuel costs compared to a gas-powered car.

So, where will these charging stations be located?

Pepper reports that charging sites will be available close to where large numbers of people are concentrated — for starters, near schools, multi-use living communities, high-rise apartments and transit hubs.  PCE also has a program for individuals who wish to install a charger at their own residences, as well as information about how to acquire an electric vehicle at a discount.

The key issue in the acceptance of electric vehicles has been the mileage capacity per charge.  The average distance is 260 miles, with Tesla touting 310 miles with its Model 3 as the highest available.  Hybrid/electric cars, relying on fuel for most of the mileage, can achieve distances of 400 to 500 miles.  The industry goal, of course, is to produce EVs with mileages comparable to conventional automobiles.

Lithium-ion batteries, which power EVs, are expensive, often up to thirty percent of the total cost per vehicle. Batteries include essential ingredients like cobalt, nickel and manganese, which are crucial to energy storage.  Research being conducted internationally could produce batteries that are less expensive and allow vehicles to go much further between charges.

Following statewide legislation dating back to 2002, PCE received the mandate to offer consumers a choice of two home electricity consumer programs, each with a different percentage of renewable energy from sources including wind and solar power.

PG&E maintains the power lines and sends a single monthly bill.  PCE provides the electricity and PG&E delivers it.  PG&E discount programs, including those for low-income customers, are also offered.

Even though PG&E was forced into bankruptcy in the aftermath of the catastrophic fires of the last few years, agreements with PCE are not at risk, explained Pepper.  She added that the use of clean energy supplied via PG&E is now available in 40 percent of northern and central California counties.

PCE consistently sets its rates at five percent below PG&E’s. Pepper says PCE’s focus is “to continually do more for the area’s environment while saving customers money.”

This story was originally published in the October print edition of Climate Magazine.