It’s time to switch to electric vehicles

New, clean transportation technology will create new jobs and provide high-paying opportunities across the state.

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GM’s all-new modular platform and battery system, Ultium, is shown at the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Mich., on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. GM rolled out plans for 13 new electric vehicles during the next five years as it trying to refashion itself as a futuristic company with technology to compete against Tesla. The company on Wednesday touted an exclusive new battery technology that could propel some of the vehicles as far as 400 miles (644 kilometers) on a single charge.

Steve Fecht/General Motors via AP

For almost as long as we’ve had internal combustion engines, we’ve had electricity at our fingertips. But until recently, we didn’t have the technology to make practical electric cars that produce almost no pollution.

Today, that moment has arrived, and it’s time to act on this progress.

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It’s time to replace millions of fossil fuel-burning vehicles with advanced, zero-emission vehicles. And it’s time for our state’s residents, governments and businesses to fully embrace “beneficial electrification.” (Electrification happens when state residents and businesses move away from petroleum- or “dirty”-powered technology/vehicles toward more environmentally friendly sources.)

The countless benefits of electrification include cleaner air, healthier residents and billions of dollars in private investment and positive economic impact.

The issue of air pollution hits close to home in Chicago, which perennially has one of the highest levels of ozone pollution of any city in the U.S. The American Lung Association classified Chicago, where nearly 3 million people live, as the 18th most-polluted city in the country based on number of high-ozone days in 2019. That’s eight spots worse than Chicago’s rating in 2017.

This pollution means an elevated occurrence of asthma, lung cancer and other lung and heart-related illnesses for our city’s residents. Such illnesses often impact the very adults and children who are least able to cope with them: the asthma rate among high-school kids in Chicago is estimated to be 22.3%, according to the Respiratory Health Association. Nationally, that figure is about 9.4%.

In a recent study by the American Lung Association that focused on 10 states that have adopted a ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) policy, 49% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation sources. Climate change, first and foremost, is a public health threat that requires urgent attention, especially through pollution reductions in the transportation sector. 

Moving toward electrification would also be a boon for our state’s economy. New, clean transportation technology will create new jobs and provide high-paying opportunities across the state. Nationally, the EV charging market has been growing by 25% per year and private companies are committing billions of dollars of additional investment around the country.

Getting the right policy framework in place will maximize the impact of the dollars that are spent in-state to expand Illinois’ EV charging network.

Lastly, for the 10 states with a ZEV policy, the health benefits would show $21 billion in future annual savings from fewer air pollution (smog and soot) related health impacts, including: asthma attacks, lost workdays, and premature deaths. Climate benefits from carbon dioxide emission reductions would include $12.8 billion in annual savings from avoided climate-related impacts on human health and the environment.

The good news is that Illinois is already taking steps in the right direction. A formerly shuttered Mitsubishi factory in Normal is being turned into an EV manufacturing plant. It will be producing electric pickup trucks later this year and up to 10,000 electric Amazon delivery vans by next year. Eventually, the plant will employ up to 1,000 workers.

But this movement is going to take continued work and greater awareness. Illinois needs to accelerate the deployment of EV charging stations and incentives that will make it easier to ride and drive electric. Vehicle owners should be provided with more current information on the health and environmental advantages of EVs. And we need governmental policies that remove barriers and put EVs on an equal footing with fossil fuel–powered vehicles.

There are specific steps Illinois can take to become a leader in electrification.

First, we can more aggressively provide policies and incentives to convert public fleets of vehicles from petroleum to electric. Second, we can encourage sustainable investments to continue building out the best network of charging stations in the whole country. Third, we can encourage auto manufacturers who want to tap into the country’s third-largest economy take tangible actions to advance electrification.

The benefits are too high, and the risks are too great, to wait any longer.

Angela Tin is an executive board member of Chicago Area Clean Cities. Brian P. Urbaszewski is director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association. Kevin George Miller is director of public policy at ChargePoint. Each of these groups is a member of Illinois Clean Air Now (ICAN).

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