November 8, 2013 - From the December, 2013 issue

Santa Monica's Terry O'Day Discusses Electric Vehicles and Transit-Oriented Development

TPR recently sat down with Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day, who began serving his first term in the position nearly a year ago after joining the Santa Monica City Council in 2010. O’Day comments on the status of electric vehicle infrastructure in the state from his perspective as NRG eVgo Vice President of California Business Development, along with sharing transit-oriented development plans for Santa Monica as the Expo Line nears completion.


Terry O'Day

"If you compare transportation electrification to another recent technology in the auto industry—the hybrid—by looking at the consumer adoption rate during the first three years of hybrid introduction to the first three years of plug-in cars, electric cars are already at more than twice the adoption rate of the Toyota Prius." -Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Terry O'Day

Terry, the New York Times recently ran a provocative piece called “Santa Monica Bets on Electric Cars, but Consumers are Slow to Switch.” You’ve been a civic and political leader in Santa Monica, you now serve on the Santa Monica City Council, you led Environment Now, and you have been an electric-cars advocate since your graduation from Stanford. Tell us how you read that New York Times article, whether it’s an accurate header, and whether its contents portend difficult years ahead for electric cars. 

Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day: In reading some of the things that it had to say about Santa Monica—its policy, support, and attention for the EV industry—I think that’s all true and pre-dates my living in Santa Monica. I don’t agree with the conclusion, however, that consumers have been slow to switch to EVs. In the interview with Ron Davis, who owns Santa Monica Ford, he said eight percent of the cars going off the lot at that Ford dealership are electric vehicles or hybrids. This had a note of disappointment in the article but, to me, it is a positive comment that we should celebrate. Today in California, you can’t walk through a parking lot without seeing an electric car. There are over 100,000 EVs on the road today in California and their sales are the highest in our state. That is a result that is absolutely unprecedented and something that we all should take as a positive indicator of the future. 

In fairness, the other point raised in the article was that if electric cars are ever going to make a dent in the market, they’re going to make a dent in the market in Santa Monica. You know the demographics and characteristics of your community better than most. If Santa Monicans in large numbers aren’t embracing electric cars, is the nation likely to?

We are still at the very beginning of the marketplace. If you compare transportation electrification to another recent technology in the auto industry—the hybrid—by looking at the consumer adoption rate during the first three years of hybrid introduction to the first three years of plug-in cars, electric cars are already at more than twice the adoption rate of the Toyota Prius. Today, the Toyota Prius, 10 years in, is the top-selling car in California. That’s the trajectory we’re on. That’s not to say that there aren’t still some significant barriers that the market and policy makers need to overcome to reach that goal, but EVs are well on the way.

The New York Times article goes on to say that there are 42 charging stations in Santa Monica, with 80 more on the way. How are these charging stations financed and how are they being sited in the community?

So far, funding charger installation has been about utilizing regional and state funding sources to install free chargers. That model is shifting toward private sector investment. For example, my company, NRG Energy, will provide access to hundreds of public fast charging sites across California through private investment in EV charging infrastructure. NRG has over $150 million committed to investing in charger installation.

Other municipalities also have started planning for and installing charging stations, some expressly planned to address electric car buyers’ range anxiety. Is that the case in Santa Monica, like jurisdictions in California, and even Texas? 

Santa Monica has always been a leader in planning for this technology, and we’ve begun to do more and more work—through the Westside Cities Council of Governments. Recently, the Southern California Association of Governments has done a lot of regional planning, partly funded through grants from the Energy Commission and Air Districts. All of these entities are coalescing and planning for the future. 

Other planning work is happening at Southern California Public Power Authority, including LADWP and Southern California Edison. Those are folks who often think quite differently about the marketplace they share, and seeing them come together in these regional planning efforts is a sign that the future is on our doorstep.

Terry, the first public EV charging station in the US that supports all models of electric vehicles opened in October in San Diego. Is this the future for new charging stations? 

That’s NRG’s vision of the future. NRG eVgo’s Freedom Station allows any car to pull up and get a fast charge or a charge that is appropriate for that vehicle. In the case of the Freedom Station, you can get as much as an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes, or 50 miles in 15 minutes. And with that charge, you get right back on the road, and you know as a member of that network that you’re free to go anywhere you want in the region.

Has installing charging stations in residential homes progressed as you thought it might in 2011, when our last interview took place?

Yes, we are about to announce plans for homes in San Diego, and shortly afterwards in San Francisco, and then LA, where we’ll enable EV drivers to put chargers in their garage on a 36-month contract for a flat price of $39 a month, much like your cell phone. With that, you can combine access to our public charging stations and the Freedom Station. We have plans that make it simpler and easier to own and operate your electric car. 

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Clearly, the boom in natural gas in the United States and North America, and its low price, have affected the business models of all transportation alternatives. How does the availability and low price of natural gas, in your opinion, affect the trajectory of electric vehicle market growth?

In our region, the low price of natural gas should keep electric costs low and stable, as it has been for many years, and enable us to integrate renewables into our grid in order to meet the state’s renewable portfolio standards. NRG Energy has repowered a couple of our plants to plan for that future. EV drivers can be sure that the fuels they are choosing, which are less expensive and have a lower environmental impact, will be that way for many years in the future.

Let’s pivot to your Santa Monica City Council responsibilities. Metro’s Expo Line is expected to reach the 4th and Colorado terminus in a few short years. How might access to rail impact Santa Monica’s quality of life and interconnectedness to the Los Angeles metropolis?

The Expo Line will make the community, which is already one of Southern California’s most walkable downtowns, even more accessible and walkable to the people in the region, and connect up to the great amenities to the east that traffic at the end of the day makes difficult to experience. The Expo Line is truly transformative for Santa Monica and for our relationship to the region. 

Will rail impact how dense Santa Monica will become? Will it affect jobs-housing balance goals, as well as how the City makes its land-use decisions going forward?

Santa Monica is an already dense and built-out community, and what we’re doing with the train station is directing any future growth into those corridors with planned transit aimed at alleviating development pressures on our neighborhoods. In doing that, we plan for the future.

If we focus our development in those transit-rich corridors along the Expo Line, and on housing, we can have a real impact on our jobs-to-housing imbalance in the city, where we have about three times as many jobs as we do housing units. This can alleviate traffic across the Westside while better connecting Santa Monica to LA.

Your City Council just approved the development of the Bergamot Area by a 6-1 vote. Could you elaborate on that opportunity and what the Council has approved?

The Bergamot Area is a mostly industrial part of Santa Monica, with the signature Bergamot Station art gallery complex right at the intersection of 26th and Olympic. This area has, over time, converted into many creative office uses, but, importantly, it will have the new light rail station arriving in 2016 for the Expo Line. We have embraced the arts history in a plan for the land use of that area that encourages: density and walkability around the train station, open space, affordable housing, and connectivity of streets to re-create the grid that should alleviate traffic in the area. It’s an exciting new plan and a step forward for Santa Monica to move from an industrial past to a walkable, sustainable, and urban future.

Let’s close, Terry, with a personal question. How does a fellow who has run Environment Now, started and run a number of environmental businesses, is an elected member of the Santa Monica City Council, has a family with young children, and is now the director of California Business Development for eVgo establish balance in life?

Very tenuously. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that I take up because I believe in service. 

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.