LINCOLN–A bill that would require settlement funds from Volkswagen AG to fund higher-grade charging stations for electric cars across the state was heard during the Appropriations Committee meeting at the Nebraska Legislature March 20.
LB 678, introduced by committee member Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, would create the Volkswagen Settlement Cash Fund and require the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to use 15 percent of the money from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund instead of 10 percent.
In 2015, Volkswagen was found to have been programming its cars to deceive emissions testing, resulting in a recall of vehicles and resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn.
As a result, Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion to settle allegations of cheating emission standards in 2017. $2.7 billion of this was given to states for projects to reduce emissions.
Nebraska received $12.25 million from the settlement, and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts chose the NDEQ to handle the funds. Each state was allowed to designate up to 15 percent of its funding for electric car charging stations. The NDEQ allocated 10 percent.
Vargas said his bill would raise that percentage to 15 percent and require that Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations be built, which charge much faster than the standard Level 1 stations, which he said would soon be obsolete.
“We have an opportunity here to help Nebraska grow and prepare for a cleaner, greener infrastructure,” he said. “These charging stations not only result in more people traveling the I-80 corridor, but it also promotes tourism in the small towns that house chargers.”
Vargas said with this project, the state should make sure funds are being expended.
Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha expressed concern at the amount of spending on charging stations.
“Why should we, as a government, be spending these dollars for fueling these vehicles?” he said. “If electric cars are the future, which some people would like us to believe, why would we not have industry coming forth to provide these charging stations?”
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard was also unsure of the bill and asked Vargas if the settlement required that charging stations had to be built in the first place.
“I’m an old guy, but I wasn’t around when the Model T came out,” he said. “I don’t know if the government went around and set up petroleum stations so that we could get gas in the Model T’s.”
Vargas said that money is already being given to the state for emission reduction projects, and since the charging stations are the most popular, funding should be increased.
“If we spend the money on Level 1 chargers across the state and they’re not utilized or if it’s not the most practical, then why would we spend the money this way?” he said. “We’re trying to avoid that.”
Proponents for the bill included Ken Winston from Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light, John Lindsay from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Michael O’Hara from the Nebraska Sierra Club and James Cavanaugh from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“Among other vital complementary policies, adequate infrastructure to fuel the vehicles is absolutely essential for long-term growth of the market,” Lindsay said. “Survey after survey reveals that lack of infrastructure is one of the No. 1 reasons for not considering an electric vehicle purchase.”
The bill’s lone opponent was the NDEQ, represented by president Jim Macy. He said although the department had no opposition to the bill’s creation of the fund, it was opposed to the charging station funding increase to 15 percent.
“Starting the EV charging category at a 10 percent funding level allows the state to gauge the interest and the demand expressed by communities to install the EV chargers,” he said. “The communities and other eligible entities have to carefully consider the match cost necessary to purchase and install the charger.”
Vargas ended the hearing by saying the committee should focus less on the future of electric cars and more on making the best use of these settlement dollars.
“All I’m saying in this bill, with very, very confined specific language, is that we’re going to use more of the money that we are able to use,” he said, “and the money that we use will be used for a specific type of charging station.”