Newsom Signs Law to Clean California Air Inside & Out of School

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Originally published on The NRDC Expert Blog.
By Merrian Borgeson & Max Baumhefner

Governor Newsom signed into law a bill authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting that will make the air safer to breathe and the water safer to drink in public schools, while reducing energy bills. It also accelerates the installation of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles needed to combat the largest source of air pollution that makes lungs more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Electric School Bus, Image courtesy of Proterra

Supported by a strong alliance of labor, educators, clean energy companies, and environmental groups, Assembly Bill (AB) 841 directs state energy efficiency funding to upgrade heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC) systems in public schools, prioritizing schools in underserved communities and those near freeways or industrial facilities. Schools will need to ramp up ventilation to re-open safely due to COVID-19, but many schools have inefficient or broken HVAC systems. This law will fund the repair and replacement of these inefficient systems, as well as new filters to reduce risk from both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke. It also provides funds to replace aging and inefficient water fixtures and appliances in schools, saving water and energy while reducing exposure to lead. The law provides targeted funding for just three years, but will provide health and cost savings benefits for decades to come.

To combat the air pollution that makes communities more vulnerable to COVID-19 and meet the state’s climate goals, California must quickly transition its transportation sector to zero-emission vehicles. While battery prices are coming down rapidly, there’s no technology cost-reduction curve for trenching, pouring concrete, and running electrical wires, which means that even when electric vehicles (EVs) have achieved cost-parity with fossil equivalents, the costs of installing charging infrastructure will remain a barrier to widespread adoption. AB 841 will once and forever remove a huge piece of that barrier, providing necessary electrical infrastructure on the utility side of the meter at no-cost to the customer at typical sites. This will take hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the costs of installing charging stations for EVs of all types, providing a foundation of support upon which independent firms, state programs, and targeted utility programs can build out the charging network needed to meet air quality and climate goals. Appropriately, the law requires that not less than 35 percent of those infrastructure investments be made in underserved communities burdened by dangerous air pollution and poverty.

Installing electrical equipment needed to charge electric cars, trucks and buses not only keeps workers on the job at a time when unemployment is high, it accelerates transportation electrification that puts downward pressure on electric rates and bills to the benefit of all utility customers. According to Synapse Energy Economics, EV drivers in Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric territory have already contributed more than $800 million in excess of associated costs, money that is automatically returned to all customers in the form of lower rates. At a moment when many Californians are struggling, the state should expand access to EV charging that puts downward pressure on utility bills.

Electric School Bus, Image courtesy of Proterra

As signed into law by Governor Newsom, AB 841 will increase employment, combat deadly tailpipe pollution, save schools money on their utility bills and make them safer environments for children, all without exacerbating California’s budgetary challenges. At a time when the state and the world could use some good news, this law fits the bill.

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