Is there a demand for electric-cars in New Jersey?

In New Jersey last year, 236 electric vehicles were sold, a seemingly huge increase over the previous year when consumers bought only six plug-in cars.

It may sound encouraging, but the numbers aren’t thrilling automotive retailers. They face increasingly tough mandates to sell so-called zero emission vehicles, a requirement they say will be difficult to meet unless the state puts in place the infrastructure necessary to spur consumers to switch to alternative fuel.

But what type of infrastructure should that be? To power plug-in electric vehicles? Vehicles running on compressed natural gas? Cars and light trucks running on propane? What about vehicles powered by fuel cells?

Those questions will have to be answered by the Christie administration and lawmakers, both of which have largely ducked the issue. They now confront tough questions about weaning the state of its petroleum addiction, and achieving aggressive goals to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming.

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By 2018, New Jersey’s car dealers will have to increase plug-in electric vehicles sales to 19,000; by 2025, sales will have to grow to approximately 77,000 vehicles annually, according to a lobbyist for automotive retailers. The requirements are mandated by the state adopting the California Low Emission Vehicle initiative nearly a decade ago, a move that requires New Jersey to switch over to cleaner-running cars in the next decade.

“New Jersey new car dealers want to sell all the new electric, hybrid and fuel-efficient models mandated under the program; we just don’t see the market there right now,” said James Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, which represents more than 500 new car dealers.

But the infrastructure is key. Consumers will not buy cars they cannot readily refuel, according to clean energy advocates.

Promoting acceptance of cleaner running cars is contingent on resolving a wide range of issues — including range anxiety, higher costs, and limited refueling options, according to Laura Dooley, state director of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “There are still outstanding and substantial obligations,” she told the committee.That issue is going to dominate the agenda of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee over the next three months, according to its chairman, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex). It promises to be a contentious fight among big energy players, clean energy advocates, and business interests.

“We want to do this right,” said Smith at a hearing on virtually all of the bills aimed at promoting alternative vehicle development in New Jersey. Given the potential of achieving both significant reductions in air pollution as well as creating many new greens jobs, Smith called the opportunity the possibility of achieving an “environmental and economic grand slam.”

One of the primary issues to resolve problems is how and which alternative fuel to promote through incentives adopted by the state to make it happen. And what type of tax credits or incentives to pass to make it happen?

The range of alternatives include plug-in-electric vehicles; cars and trucks powered by compressed natural gas; others that use propane; and still others that rely on fuel cells –most likely fueled by natural gas. Beyond answering that question, are there enough state funds and tax credits to make more than one happen?

Most environmentalists favor plug-in electric vehicles, a solution they say will usher out the era of vehicles driven by fossil fuels, a primary contributor of global warming and the source of more than half of the air pollution in New Jersey.

In his opening remarks, however, Smith acknowledged the huge potential of converting fleet to natural gas, a fuel that reduces air pollution while also offering significant savings to businesses. “There’s a major opportunity here,” he said, describing the opportunity to develop a package of bills involving a series of alternative fuels as an ” energy lightning rod for our economy.”

But an even bigger problem, Smith conceded, is what happens if consumers switch to alternative fuels instead of gasoline, whose taxes fund most of the state’s transportation projects. “That’s a really tough issue,” he said.

To help the state navigate those issues, the panel approved a bill to establish a new study commission to look at various clean car options in New Jersey and what direction it should take.

Meanwhile, the committee plans to plow through a range of issues posed by the many bills aimed at promoting alternative-fuel vehicles.

Should alternative-fuel vehicles be given free parking spaces at transit stations and other locations? Should corporations be given tax credits for converting fleets of vehicles to alternative fuels? How many alternative fuel-recharging stations ought to be required on toll roads and shopping malls?

Underlying all those bills is an effort to curb pollution from motor vehicles, widely considered as contributing half of the emissions in New Jersey, which leads to poor air quality, particularly for ground-level ozone, a federal health quality standard the state has never met.

In an unusual development, environmentalists were at odds over whether the state should push plug-in electric vehicles or promote ones that run on compressed natural gas, which some feared would lead to an increase hydraulic fracturing, a process used by the energy industry to extract natural gas from wells. Critics say it poses a threat to drinking water supplies in New Jersey.

“Electric cars clearly offer the best strategy to get us off oil and curb global warming,” said Doug O’Malley, interim director of Environment New Jersey.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disputed that view. ” You can still oppose fracking and still support compressed natural gas vehicles,” he said, adding the technology is cheaper and can be used with fuel-cell technology.

Others argued that the state needs to put in place incentives to help New Jersey utilities develop the infrastructure for cleaner-running cars.

“Tax incentives are an appropriate policy tool,” argued Wayne Wittman, of the emerging technology group at PSEG, the parent company of Public Service Electric & Gas. He said the utility is ready to help build the infrastructure for alternative-fuel vehicles.

Smith said he hopes to incorporate numerous components of the bills before his committee into one package that will address the concerns raised in the various measures.

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