Unveiling a new climate deal with China last week, President Obama is aiming to double the pace of U.S. greenhouse gas reductions over the next decade. With increasing renewable energy supplies and a growing role for natural gas, as well as ongoing efforts to continue improving energy efficiency, we’ve seen how utilities can lead the way on ratcheting down electric sector emissions. 

But electric utilities are also in a unique and vital position to help drive progress in another sector that’s critical to our long-term energy and environmental goals: transportation. Expanding the use of efficient electric vehicles (EVs) is one of the most important opportunities we have as a country to ensure a cleaner, more secure energy future. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While our industry is already a leader in supporting transportation electrification, we’re committed to doing more. This week at the White House, our companies and the industry’s trade association, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) announced that 70 major utilities across the country have committed to increase investment by an estimated $50 million per year to add more electric vehicles to their fleets starting in 2015. 

EEI also announced a new Employee Adoption and Education Initiative to encourage member utilities to join in the Department of Energy’s Workplace Charging Challenge and to help drive plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) adoption among utility employees.  

For our companies and our customers, the benefits of electrification go beyond reducing carbon in our economy or reducing local air pollution. For example, PG&E is pioneering the use of innovative electric trucks equipped with batteries that can export up to 120 kilowatts of power, enough to light a neighborhood while repairs are being made by electric crews.  

Imagine, for instance, how this could improve the response to power outages. With this new capability, crews can use power from the vehicle to get the lights back on while repairs are being made. As an added benefit, these and other electric-based vehicles cut fuel and maintenance costs. They also have a longer useful life than combustion engine vehicles because of mechanical simplicity. 

Nevertheless, further breakthroughs in electric-drive technology are needed before all-electric vehicles will be able to vie with conventional alternatives. The industry’s new fleet commitments are aimed, in part, at helping advance that innovation in the years ahead, especially in light trucks. 

Pickups and other light trucks are the workhorses of utility fleets. They’re also the biggest-selling vehicles in the U.S., making them vital to any effort aimed at significantly expanding electrification.  Utilities working with automakers and other partners to develop new electric options in this category could be a game-changer for the future. As some of the largest fleet operators in the U.S., we can both drive innovation and, through purchase commitments like those announced this week, create a bridge to broader commercialization of these technologies. 

Utilities also have a role to play in working with key stakeholders and supporting the development of the charging infrastructure in their regions. Electric vehicle adoption in Oregon has been helped significantly by the installation of quick-charging stations from end-to-end on Interstate 5, the main north/south route in the state -- now known as The Oregon Electric Highway. With 944 EV charging spots, Oregon also offers the most EV chargers per capita in the U.S. 

We recognize that fulfilling electric transportation’s potential will require a utility industry that’s an active partner in EVs’ success. Utilities must continue to innovate, invest, and work closely with customers, regulators, automakers, and other partners to develop policies, best practices and the charging infrastructure that will allow EVs to flourish. 

Large-scale transportation electrification is one of our greatest opportunities—maybe the greatest—to change America’s energy future and reduce greenhouse gasses. That’s a bold aspiration to be sure. But it’s one that, however distant the possibility may seem today, is within reach if we continue to pursue it. 

Earley, chairman and CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and Piro, CEO and president of Portland General Electric, co-chair the Edison Electric Institute’s Electric Transportation Task Force.