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NH to decide how to spend $31 million from VW in settlement

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 18. 2018 10:29PM
An American flag flies next to a Volkswagen car dealership in San Diego, Calif., Sept. 23, 2015. Volkswagen has pleaded guilty in a wide-ranging investigation into the company's diesel engines that were equipped with software designed to fool federal emissions tests. (REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo)

CONCORD — State officials are developing a plan for how to spend $31 million allocated to New Hampshire as the state’s piece of an unprecedented $14.7 billion settlement with Volkswagen for cheating on its emission control systems.

The state can use the money to improve air quality by replacing old diesel-engine vehicles in state, municipal or private fleets; or it can speed up the transition to electric vehicles by investing in more charging stations and conversion to electric fleets.

Different stakeholders are going to have different ideas of how the money should be spent, and they’ll all have the chance to make their views known in a series of public hearings in March.

“This is the very beginning of a long process over the next couple of years as New Hampshire establishes its priorities and can spend down this money,” says Christopher Ellms Jr., energy advisor in the state Office of Strategic Initiatives, which has been assigned to coordinate the program by Gov. Chris Sununu.

“We want to make sure we use this money to find a balance between maximizing reductions in emissions, while at the same time finding other benefits, like helping to promote economic development, lower property taxes and finding other social benefits,” Ellms says. “We want to make sure our emissions reductions are good and we are getting a good bang for the buck.”

In Maine, for example, Gov. Paul LePage is working with Quebec to determine the number and location of electric vehicle charging stations that will most appeal to tourists from the Canadian province, where electricity is cheap and electric vehicles far more common.

Draft plan coming

A draft of the plan will be released by the end of the month or in early March, after which the date and location of the public hearings will be announced.

The court managing the trust has set certain conditions. The money can be used to replace aging diesel-engine vehicles, which then must be destroyed. That applies to freight trucks, school buses, airport ground equipment, forklifts — even ferries and tugs.

States are authorized to use up to 15 percent of their allocation for electric vehicle charging stations, and can use up to 15 percent for administration.

“I can’t speak specifically to the plan yet,” said Ellms, “but we will be looking beyond the state fleets for a lot of this funding. The settlement is going to be really positive for cities and towns. We are focused on making sure funds are spent throughout the state and will be used to help offset the cost of a great number of municipal vehicles.”

Diesel trucks and buses manufactured between 1992 and 2009 would be likely targets for replacement with newer diesel vehicles, but environmentalists are pushing for an aggressive focus on electrification.

“Replacing diesel buses and multiple occupancy vehicles with electric ones should be the top priority for the New Hampshire allotment,” says Catherine Corkery with the Sierra Club. “Schools, hospitals and private businesses could use the help with the benefits being cleaner air on campuses, and lower maintenance and fuel costs.”

Manchester could reduce school district spending and pollution with a solar array fueling a few e-buses, she said.

Jump-start transition

What the state shouldn’t do is use all the money to replace existing vehicles, according to Corkery, who said, “Retiring old diesel vehicles at DOT should have been done years ago. Shamefully, New Hampshire lawmakers have been too scared to pay for it themselves.”

Emily Green, staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, agrees. “We believe all investments should be designed to achieve maximum reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “Thirty-one million is a lot of money and we’d like to see the state use those funds to jump-start the transition to electrification of New Hampshire’s transportation sector.”

Ellms says it will take most of this year for the state to finalize its plan, and get set up to receive applications for funding, with money going out the door in 2019.

“We are looking forward to the feedback from various stakeholders,” he said of the upcoming hearings.

However the money is disbursed, the program has the potential to significantly improve air quality in New Hampshire.

“I definitely think it can have a benefit there,” Ellms said. “These vehicles get used more than any others and some of them are generating a great deal of emissions, so there’s no doubt it will make a dent. And beyond emissions, it will be a big benefit to the state just to have $30 million in new vehicles out there.”

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