Commentary: Vermont’s Electric Vehicle Future (May, 2018)

by John McClaughry

For the past 20 years Vermont state government has aggressively worked to get Vermonters to abandon internal combustion vehicles (ICVs) in favor of electric vehicles (EVs) of both hybrid and all-electric types. The favored method in those early years was to adopt California emission standards by requiring auto dealers to sell quotas of EVs.

The dealers resisted on the reasonable grounds that most car buyers aren’t interested in EVs, mainly because of excessive prices, “range anxiety”, safety concerns, and battery failures in cold weather.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan, founded on combating the menace of global warming, reiterated support of low- and zero-emission vehicle programs. It declared an EV goal of 25% of all vehicles registered by 2030. (It’s now less than 2%). Its 2016 update called for “a large-scale transformation to alternatively fueled vehicles that reduce petroleum usage and related emissions with advanced technologies and fuels (such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, all-electric vehicles, and fuel-cell electric vehicles.)”

The Department of Environmental Conservation is now focusing on creating more and faster public EV charging stations. (There were 1395 EVs registered in October 2016, 0.3% of Vermont’s 450,000 passenger vehicles; there are now 164 charging stations.)

Today’s EVs run smoothly and quietly and look good. They insulate owners from fuel price volatility and supply shortages, and in most states from fuel taxes.

But EVs do not come without problems. Even though 13 manufacturers now offer vastly improved EVs with greater ranges and lower prices, and the $7,500 Federal tax credit is still available, there has not been a rush to buy EVs. Most of the EVs sold are bought by high income purchasers. A 2015 study found that buyers of the lower-cost Ford Focus EV had an average household income of $199,000, more than three times the U.S. median household income. Tesla owners’ incomes averaged $293,200.

Power train repairs require expert technicians. Many EV models are not attractive for rural roads, or where winter weather diminishes their battery capacity by as much as 35%. Even where a charging station is convenient, there can be “charging time trauma”. Public charging stations primarily use 240-volt (Level 2) chargers that charge a Tesla Model 3 in 6.5 hours. Motorists won’t find that acceptable on the Interstate.

Since EVs use the highways but don’t purchase gas or diesel fuel, they escape the tax used to support highway maintenance. To deal with this, seventeen states now impose additional licensing or registration fees on these vehicles. Vermont has studied this in depth three times since 2013. The most recent report reaffirms that “registration fees should not be increased … until the market for EVs moves beyond an early adopter phase”, which they think won’t end until 15% of passenger vehicles are electric (68,000!).

Will replacement of ICVs by EVs reduce harmful pollutants? After a long and complex analysis, economist and former Vermont DPS planner Dr. Jonathan Lesser finds, in a paper just published (“Short Circuit”, Manhattan Institute), that  “subsidies and mandates designed to accelerate migration from ICVs to ZEVs would result in greater emissions of criteria air pollutants—SO2, NOx, and particulates—but lower emissions of CO2. Thus, one of the key claims used to justify ZEV subsidies and mandates to replace ICVs—that they will reduce levels of criteria air pollutants—is unsupported.”

“Although the analysis shows that ZEVs will reduce CO2 emissions relative to an equivalent number of ICVs, the reductions will have no impact on climate and, hence, no

economic benefit. This will be true even if ZEVs were powered using electricity generated only from renewable sources.”

The just-passed transportation bill tasks the Public Utilities Commission with reporting on just where the ZEV push is taking us. It includes a commendable provision that the PUC study the barriers to EV charging, “including strategies… to reduce operating costs for current and future EV users without shifting costs to ratepayers who do not own or operate EVs.” Whether legislators adopt such strategies remains to be seen.

What conclusions should legislators draw about Vermont’s long-running EV campaign? In a nutshell, the state should: aggressively reduce regulatory barriers to encourage EV usage by those who perceive its advantages; charge EVs a registration surcharge so that EVs pay their fair share of upkeep of Vermont’s highways and bridges; designate and permit public sites for charging stations, but price the energy delivered by publicly-owned chargers to pay off their costs; allow utilities and other private companies to install their own chargers at those and other sites; and abandon any compulsion to regulate and spend to reach any arbitrary goal of  “X% of all vehicles shall be electric by 20XX”.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Deanne June 1, 2018 at 12:57 pm

Thank you for this good article. Some friends of ours who live in Idaho recently bought a Tesla. Last fall, they drove it to New England, Florida, and back to Idaho. Their whole trip had to be scheduled around getting to charging stations. I asked them why they decided to buy one and it had to do with a long-time interest since he had built an electric car with his grandfather 35-40 years ago. Apparently it was such a good design that General Motors went to look at it, but nothing ever came of it. During their visit with us of several days, the car was his main topic of conversation, sometimes while standing around at a charging station, so I am interested in this topic.

I have heard there have also been health concerns with the battery packs.

Thank you for these details.

Reply

Jim June 1, 2018 at 1:04 pm

Alll we hear about is clean EVS and how wonerful they are for the environment. If and when the sale of EVS grow to serious levels, what impact will there be on the environment when added electricity generation is needed to charge these things? Wish someone would comment on this part of the equation.

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Theodore Schaft June 1, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Hello, to be able to use a large number of EVs, there must be nuclear power as the base load. The technology to build and maintain these has improved dramatically since 1978, the last time one was built. Think about cars, appliance, etc and the technology surrounding them in the 70’s and how advanced they are now. The same can be said for nuclear power. Fourth and fifth generation nuclear plants use 95% of the energy available and half-lives are less than 500 years as opposed to 10,000 years.

The problem is political. The public’s initial reaction is one of fear and distaste. They need to be educated about the advantages.

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