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Clean Energy Advocates Push For Electric Vehicles In Low-Income Communities

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Clean energy advocates say expanding electric transportation in low-income communities would require creating incentive programs and developing public charging infrastructure.

CHICAGO – Clean energy advocates want to improve access to electric vehicles in low-income communities in Illinois. A new analysis from the Citizens Utilities Board — a consumer advocacy organization based in Chicago — argues that creating policies that promote the use of electric vehicles could lower consumer costs and air pollution in communities most vulnerable to climate change.

Gas-powered motor vehicles are now the biggest contributor to climate change pollution. According to the U.S. EPA, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by electricity — which makes up 27%. Industry, including burning fossil fuels, contributes 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The communities hardest hit by those emissions are often marginalized and low-income, says David Kolata, Executive Director of the Citizens Utilities Board.

“Of course a lot of the localized effects of pollution are felt in neighborhoods that are suffering the most from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kolata says. “So certainly electrifying transportation can help from a pollution and an environmental justice point of view.”

Kolata recommends creating incentive programs for people in underserved communities to own electric vehicles — like income-based programs to swap internal combustion cars for electric cars — as well as ensuring neighborhoods have public charging stations. He adds that electrifying public and municipal transit like buses, garbage trucks and school buses could help make the air cleaner for residents.

In Urbana, there are currently no programs in place to develop such incentives, or for an expansion of electric transportation in the city, but officials see it as an inevitable step.

“Certainly we are encouraging transportation electrification,” says Scott Tess, the city’s Sustainability & Resilience Officer. “Passenger vehicles are going to be electrified. The question is how fast? Buses are going to go to battery electric or hydrogen. Again, [it’s just a matter of] how fast.”

The ultimate goal is for electric transportation to reduce fossil fuel emissions in the state, David Kolata says.

“What all the best models show, is essentially we need to electrify transportation by 2050 if we’re going to meet our climate change goals,” Kolata says. “Because right now, the transportation sector is the biggest contributor to global warming pollution in Illinois.”

Urbana is aiming to reduce 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. In order to do so, Scott Tess says the city should focus on three main aspects: “Decarbonize electricity, electrify everything, and include everyone,” he says.

Currently, only about 2 to 3% of the U.S. population owns electric vehicles. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act, which has yet to be passed, includes incentive programs and public charging stations as part of a plan to remove one million gasoline and diesel-powered cars from the road.

Lecia Bushak is a reporter at Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @Lecia_Bushak.

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Lecia Bushak

Lecia Bushak

Lecia Bushak is a Multimedia Environmental Reporter at WILL. Previously, she was a Reporter/Producer for NPR/PBS in Cleveland, where she covered mental health, the opioid epidemic and environmental health, among a variety of other topics for radio, television and digital. Illinois Newsroom’s Environmental reporting is supported by a grant from the Backlund Charitable Trust.

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