ALBANY – In the final weeks of talks over a new state budget, the governor, legislators and dozens of special-interest groups are debating the usual hot-button issues of a minimum wage hike, public college tuition policies, tax cuts, and aid for schools, health care and roads.
Behind the scenes, lobbyists for environmental groups and the planet’s biggest automobile manufacturers are working furiously as the clock ticks to get their own piece of the budget pie. It is a matter that will affect taxpayers, corporate spreadsheets and greenhouse gas emissions – not to mention car buyers.
They want Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders to give tax breaks or taxpayer-funded rebates to consumers who buy zero-emissions vehicles, such as battery electric or hydrogen cell fuel cars. They also want the state to better locate electric charging stations and add hydrogen refueling stations to accommodate what proponents see as a coming player in the marketplace for zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEV.
“It’s about helping to spur and develop the market,” said John Bozzella, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Global Automakers. The association represents the interests of 12 car companies, including Subaru, Honda, Nissan, Kia, Toyota and Hyundai.
Bozzella’s organization and another trade group, whose members include the big American car companies and some major foreign firms, have joined with environmental groups to try to convince Albany to spur ZEV sales.
Corporate executives in offices from Paris to Tokyo and Seoul to Detroit are monitoring how this scene unfolds in Albany. And what happens in this debate also has captured the interest of seven other states that, along with New York, signed a deal in 2014 to promote the sales of zero-emission vehicles.
“We won’t succeed in building an electric vehicle market, which is what we really want, unless we have other states involved in this effort as well,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, a state office created in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to tackle air pollution problems.
Environmentalists and carmakers praise Cuomo for recently pushing to deal with climate change issues, especially his attention on pollution emitted from energy facilities.
But they say he has not done enough to curb vehicle emissions, which account for 34 percent of the state’s carbon pollution that environmentalists say is worsening climate change.
Several other states have done more than New York to promote sales of the zero-emission vehicles, especially in the area of consumer tax or rebate incentives, the carmakers and environmentalists say.
“The next step to be taken as New York becomes a true climate leader is to address the enormous climate pollution from vehicles. As the budget comes together, Gov. Cuomo and state legislators have a great chance to lay the groundwork to clean our air and grow our economy by implementing electric vehicle rebates,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, the state affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation.
“This will send a powerful signal to consumers and manufacturers that New York is in the game,” he added.
Cuomo signs ZEV pact
Cuomo in 2014, signed a document with seven other Northeast and Mid-Atlantic governors, as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown, to lead the nation in embracing and promoting ZEV sales.
Providing incentives or rebates for consumers, building more recharging stations and providing support for research of new technology were supposed to be some of the ways to promote the ZEV sales.
“New York has been a leading state in developing a cleaner transportation sector,’’ said Peter Constantakes, spokesman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a state agency. The goal was to promote the sales of 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025,
But New York’s approach has been too slow since then, some critics say. New York is supposed to sell between 800,000 and 880,000 of the vehicles, a number that depends on whether the state or advocates are providing it.
In the past five years, 2,936 battery electric vehicle and 8,925 hybrid battery electric vehicles have been sold in New York, according to NYSERDA.
ZEV sales face several challenges: little interest among consumers, falling prices for gasoline for conventional cars, improving mileage for some gasoline models, still-evolving technology in the ZEV products and battery electric charge times that can take, depending on the model, eight hours or more.
To help spur the sales, rebates or other incentives were seen as a solution.
Rebates on the table
State-funded incentives have bolstered ZEV sales, said Nichols, of the California Air Resources Board.
While not criticizing efforts in other states, the board chairwoman pointed to Georgia, where ZEV sales rose when an incentive was enacted and then dropped when the tax break was eliminated.
New York has the influence to end what she says is automakers’ excuses for not expanding more swiftly into the Northeast market, Nichols said.
“They cite reasons why they don’t believe Northeast states are serious. It would be great for us to be joined by New York,” Nichols said of the tax or rebate incentives.
New York in 2014 agreed with the other states to explore “point-of-purchase” rebates to encourage ZEV sales. That has not happened in the Empire State.
Assembly Democrats on Friday proposed providing buyers of ZEV and clean-burning emission vehicles – using fuel that is composed of at least 85 percent hydrogen – with up to $5,000 in state-funded rebates. The rebates would also apply to consumers who lease such cars for at least 36 months.
Senate Republicans also added a ZEV rebate program of up to $2,500 per purchase in its own one-house budget bill printed late Friday night.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Peter Iwanowicz, from Environmental Advocates of New York, asked them to use $20 million from a $2 billion legal settlement fund to create a ZEV purchase incentive fund.
In all, 17 states, including New York, provide some sort of state-funded ZEV incentives.
Eleven of those 17 states provide consumer financial incentives, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In California, there is a $5,000 tax credit for a ZEV purchase. Car companies offer rebates, as does the federal government, which under one program gives a $2,500 tax break for electric vehicle purchases.
There are also rebate or incentive programs in several other states, including Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Florida. In some states, like Massachusetts, indirect help is given the industry, such as free land for four hydrogen refueling stations along the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The Cuomo administration is not ruling out the need for tax incentives to encourage ZEV sales.
“New York is committed to working with the auto industry and other organizations to improve ZEV technologies, further expand the necessary clean fuel infrastructure and build greater consumer demand to achieve the goals of the ZEV MOU,’’ said Constantakes, of NYSERDA.
As for the recharging or refueling stations that power the vehicles, New York has focused most of its spending on building out the infrastructure to recharge ZEVs. The number of electric charging stations has grown from 500 in the beginning of 2013 to more than 1,300 presently, with plans for a total of 3,000 by 2018.
But New York has about 13 percent of the total facilities that exist in California, and significantly trails oil-loving Texas, as well as Washington and Florida.
New York installed four rapid-speed charging stations at four Thruway rest stops – all located south of Albany – that for $8 can partially charge an electric vehicle in about 20 minutes, including building charging or refueling stations for electric or hydrogen vehicles.
Assembly Democrats now propose giving companies rebates of up to $250,000 for each ZEV recharging or refueling station constructed.
Lobbyists also are trying to get Albany interested in hydrogen fuel cars, which they say are a key part of the ZEV future.
Toyota has a stake in gas-electric hybrids like the Prius or plug-in electric hybrids, battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, spokesman Ed Lewis said.
“We believe hydrogen fuel cell electrics have an edge over battery electrics in cost reduction, affordability, convenience, range and fill-up time,’’ he said.
Car companies are investing significant sums in ZEV technology, said Bozzella, from the Association of Global Automakers.
“It’s not just the taxpayer,” he said of investments to build up a ZEV market. “The manufacturers are already providing very, very strong support for these vehicles,” he said.
For New York to make its ZEV goal by 2025, he said it will need a “very strong, combined effort” between business and government. He likened government money for ZEV programs to public investments being made in industries such as solar.
“New York is the largest auto market of all the Northeastern states that have signed the (2014) MOU. So, there’s a great opportunity for leadership here,” Bozzella said.