A surge in electric vehicle charging is coming to Chicago thanks to the record settlement in the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal.
Chicago ranks third (behind New York City and Washington, D.C.) in an 11-city pool that will split $1.2 billion of VW money over the next 10 years. The funds will be used to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure and educate the public on the benefits of electric vehicles.
"The VW investment award to Chicago is terrific news for a city that has taken many steps towards clean transportation," Robert Kelter, senior attorney at the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in a statement. "The VW funds will accelerate the shift away from traditional gasoline vehicles to a new generation of electric vehicles that will mean lower costs, cleaner air and less dependence on foreign oil — a real step towards keeping Chicago at the forefront of great American cities."
Chicago has had a troubled past with electric vehicle charging infrastructure. In 2015, the owners of 350Green, the California-based company hired by the city to build the largest network of electric vehicle charging stations in the country, were indicted for defrauding the city, subcontractors and other agencies.
The city has learned from the 350Green fiasco it helped uncover, announcing in February new grants available for charging station equipment and installation, with funds being provided after the work is completed and the station is operational.
"I want Chicago to be the greenest city in the world," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
That appears to be at odds with the state's policies. In March 2015, two months after the inauguration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, the state of Illinois suspended the Illinois Green Fleets rebate program, which provided a $4,000 rebate for customers of plug-in vehicles.
"We welcome the addition of more charging stations," said Mike Claffey, spokesman for Chicago Department of Transportation.
Electric vehicles have proliferated in recent years. Most major automakers sell plug-in vehicles, which include all-electric vehicles such as the 351-mile Tesla Model S and 238-mile Chevrolet Bolt, as well as dozens of plug-in hybrids, ranging from the Chevrolet Volt to full product lines from BMW and Mercedes.
Despite incentives including a $7,500 federal tax credit, car buyers have been slow to adopt electric vehicles, which account for less than 1 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. Range anxiety, or the driver's fear that an EV will run out of charge before arriving at its destination, is cited as the biggest barrier to mass adoption.
One effect of the VW funds — Chicago's portion is unknown at this time — could be to overcome range anxiety. The infrastructure improvements will consist primarily of community charging in five different sectors, ranging from multifamily homes to public parking lots, as well as a long distance highway network of fast chargers spaced about 66 miles apart on interstates such as I-75, I-94, I-80 and potentially I-90. The money will be disbursed in four 30-month cycles under Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen created to implement rules of the settlement.
This is all part of a $14.7 billion settlement agreement Volkswagen reached with the U.S. for installing cheat software in its "clean" diesel passenger vehicles. The software would turn on pollution controls during EPA emissions tests, then shut off on the road to deliver greater performance. Without the device activated, the VW diesel cars could churn out nitrous-oxide emissions up to 40 times higher than the federal limit.
Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, but the true environmental cost depends on the power source. Over the entire life cycle of a car, EVs generate half the emissions of a comparable gas-powered car, according to a comprehensive 2015 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.