Nirvana Unplugged: Why Aren’t More Americans Buying Electric Vehicles?

By Rebecca Bellan | Mother Jones
October 16, 2018

“What’s the future market for EVs? I wish I knew.”

According to a new report from the United Nations’ scientific panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), humanity has about 12 years to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change. To avert catastrophic sea level rise, food shortages, and widespread drought and wildfire, emissions must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels, and by 100 percent by 2050.

To accomplish this daunting feat, the global transportation sector will need a major overhaul. In the US, the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, transportation makes up the largest share of emissions. In cities, passenger vehicles and public transit fleets will have to move from fuel-burning engines to electrification, a “powerful measure to decarbonize short-distance vehicles,” according to the IPCC report.

Advocates for electric vehicles have been saying this for decades. Where do US cities stand in 2018 on electric vehicle adoption?

So far, progress has been wildly insufficient: In the US, close to 200,000 electric vehicles—both plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) like the Chevy Volt and the Toyota Prius Prime and battery-electric vehicles (BEV) like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S—were sold in 2017, out of 17,340,700 vehicles. That’s only 1.15 percent of all cars sold in 2017. But, to put that in perspective, that’s a 26 percent increase from 2016, and the trend is expected to continue, according to environmental advocates and EV industry experts.

If we want a survivable world, it’ll have to. Here’s a look at the range of initiatives, regulations, and incentives that states and cities around the country are taking to embrace this future-critical technology.

The leader of the pack

California remains the state leading the electrification charge. There, plug-in and battery electric vehicles made up 4.8 percent of total car sales in the first quarter of 2017. Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order setting a goal of five million electric vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030. This $2.5 billion initiative will also help to bring 250,000 vehicle charging stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations to the state by 2025. California also offers the most rebates and incentives of any state, including granting drivers of alternative-fuel cars HOV lane exemption and a Clean Vehicle Rebate Project that provides $1,500 to $2,500 to consumers who purchase light-duty zero emission vehicles and PHEVs.

Public infrastructure build-outs are in the works around the state. Los Angeles currently has a total of 1,800 EV charging stations, and hopes that this number will reach 25,000 by 2018, according to Lauren Faber O’Connor, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

California’s work has been influential beyond its borders. Its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program has been successful in introducing EVs to the market by requiring automakers within the state to sell a certain percentage of electric cars and trucks. The same goes for the nine others that have adopted it: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Those states represent about a third of the US auto market, which should pressure automakers to expand their affordable EV offerings. “Collectively, they have a lot of purchasing power, and a lot of political power,” said Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Local efforts, nationwide

Cities from Sacramento to Austin to Burlington are undertaking efforts large and small, from electrifying bus fleets to increasing public accessibility to EVs through car-sharing programs. Last year, Atlanta passed a landmark ordinance that requires all new residential homes and public parking facilities to accommodate EVs and 20 percent of the spaces in all new commercial and multi-family parking structures to be plug-in ready. Similarly, Vermont’s energy building code requires commercial and residential projects over a certain size to include a percentage of EV supply equipment or EV-ready parking spaces.

In 2016, Columbus, Ohio won the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Fueled partly by $50 million in grant winnings, the city’s Smart Columbus public-private partnership aims to reinvent local mobility systems. According to Brendan Kelley of Drive Electric Ohio, an initiative of the statewide nonprofit Clean Fuels Ohio dedicated to improving air quality, Smart Columbus has a goal of increasing EV market penetration in the city by 500 percent by early 2020. To help the city meet this goal, Drive Electric Ohio offers a program where residents and local businesses can meet up to learn about and test drive EVs. “We’ve found that the most effective tactic for overcoming people’s misconceptions about EVs and opening them up to the possibility of buying one is to get them behind the wheel of an EV,” said Kelley.

In Texas, Austin is rapidly working on a plan to transition 330 municipally-owned vehicles into electric over the next three years. Orlando, Florida, is leveraging its status as one of the most-visited destinations in the US through a program called Drive Electric Orlando in partnership with the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit group of business leaders that aims to accelerate EV adoption for the benefit of national and economic security. “We saw an opportunity to get people into EVs as they rent cars,” said Christopher Castro, the city’s director of sustainability. “We’re working with hospitality partners, all of the theme parks, most of the hotels, all of which have charging stations.” Castro also said that Orlando has committed towards 100 percent of their fleet powered by alternative fuels by 2030. More broadly, the Florida Department of Transportation and Drive Electric Florida are working on a rollout of charging stations down the I-95 corridor on the east coast and on the I-4 from Tampa to Daytona.

Looking north, New York state offers a $2,000 rebate for the purchase or lease of a new PHEV. Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $250 million EV expansion initiative called EVolve NY in partnership with the New York Power Authority. This program will strive for public-private partnerships through the next seven years to come up with new business and ownership models, increase awareness about EVs and charging, and expand fast-charging infrastructure.

New York City’s goal is to reach 20 percent of cars sold for use in the city to be electric by 2025, up from less than 1 percent today. NYC also aims to convert its public bus system to an all-electric fleet by 2040. In Boston, 5 percent of parking citywide must be equipped with EV chargers, and 10 percent be EV-ready in new construction projects and all projects in South Boston and downtown parking freeze zones, according to the City of Boston’s EV policy

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