Electric vehicle use creeps along; proponents urge a bigger push

Members of the Westport Electric Car Club hold rallies  and other events celebrating EV use.

Westport Electric Car Club

Members of the Westport Electric Car Club hold rallies and ribbon cuttings for new charging stations.

Barry Kresch, a marketing consultant from Westport, took the leap to electric cars two years ago. Well, sort of.

He bought a Chevy Volt. It’s considered an electric vehicle (EV). You plug it into the wall to charge a battery that can run it. But it also has a backup gasoline engine that can extend the Volt’s range from about 80 miles to 300 and help drivers over the psychological hump called “range anxiety” – more plainly known as running out of battery juice.

Kresch said he looked at the all-electric, no-backup Nissan Leaf too. “A lot of my usage is local. I drive to the train station and charge it up there,” he said. But, noting he has family in New Jersey and Boston, he said, “It just didn’t have enough range. So I was not comfortable going to a fully electric vehicle.”

Concerns like Kresch’s are what Connecticut officials were trying to overcome when they began a charging station incentive program a little over a year ago and joined seven other states  in a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) initiative aimed at getting 3.3 million ZEVs on the road by 2025.

The goal is to help ameliorate climate change by using less fossil fuel, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Transportation is thought to contribute about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

But there’s growing sentiment that the state’s two actions haven’t done the job, and that the state needs added incentives to get more EVs on the road.

“Things take time to go from development to mainstream,” said Anne Gobin, bureau chief of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s air division. Gobin said the state is actually in better shape with EVs than it was at a comparable point in the introduction of hybrid vehicles.

The Department of Motor Vehicles reports that, as of Sept. 1, there were just under 1,300 plug-in vehicles registered in the state. That refers to cars that are all-electric like the Leaf – also sometimes called battery electric vehicles. And it includes plug-in hybrids like the Volt. It does not include hybrids such as the original Toyota Prius, which uses a gasoline engine to recharge the battery. While it’s confusing, such cars are sometimes referred to as hybrid electric vehicles.

Nationally, as of this October, there were about 265,000 plug-ins on the road, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry group representing electric car companies, battery and other component manufacturers, utilities and others, whose national data is widely used by government and industry. While that’s up more than 80 percent from a year ago, about 40 percent of total vehicles are registered in California.

Connecticut’s charging station program has about $1 million at its disposal from the Northeast Utilities-NStar merger settlement. DEEP has used nearly a third of the funds so far, bringing the total number of public charging stations in the state to more than 270 at about 150 locations.

“I think that was a great step that the Malloy administration undertook to cover the whole state so that range anxiety shouldn’t be an issue; nobody should be stranded,” said Mark LeBel, a staff attorney with the regional environmental advocacy group Acadia Center, formerly known as ENE or Environment Northeast.

“But there hasn’t been comprehensive, state-level followup,” he said, referring to the multi-state ZEV plan. More than a mere feel-good goal, it’s a full action plan covering 11 topics and assessing penalties if goals are not met.

LeBel said Massachusetts, also in the multi-state group, established a task force to figure out implementation and would have a plan in another month or so. Connecticut, he said, should do the same. “It would be great for them to go through the multi-state ZEV action plan, look at each item, assign it to somebody, figure out who has to deal with it, and figure out a plan for getting it done.”

Many believe that to boost sales of plug-in vehicles in Connecticut, the state should do what its neighbor to the north (along with several other states) also did: Offer purchase incentives. They are seen as the best way to help car buyers defray some of the cost of an electric car.

A Tesla charging station in Greenwich.

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

A Tesla charging station in Greenwich.

The lower price end for plug-ins is $30,000 to $35,000; an all-electric Tesla can run around $70,000. A $7,500 federal tax credit offers some help. California, Massachusetts and Tennessee are among states that offer rebates. Georgia and Colorado have tax credits. But many in Connecticut believe it’s a lot more important to have that price break on the front end.

“I think the incentives are important. The design of the incentives is something we have to think about,” said Gobin, citing research on incentive programs. “Cash up front off the price of the car sells cars better than credits later, rebates.”

And she agrees with many other Connecticut advocates and officials who believe the simplest thing may be reinstating the kind of sales tax waiver the state had for the original hybrids.

“You can cap it at particular levels so that you aren’t spending tons of money subsidizing Teslas,” LeBel said.

But if California is any example, cold, hard cash may not be the only enticement to buy a plug-in. John Gartner, research director for Navigant Research, a Colorado-based clean technology market research firm, was one of many people who singled out what California’s biggest plug-in perk may be: access to the HOV lanes. “It’s huge on California’s congested roads,” he said.

Other incentives include free or premium parking. Many of these ideas are likely to make their way into Connecticut legislation next session. And they already have a supporter in Energy and Technology Committee Co-Chair Lonnie Reed, D-Branford.

“I am really enthusiastic about the promise of sales tax waivers, tax credits, HOV priority status and additional enticements for municipalities and private companies to install charging,” she said. “I also want to make certain that our incentives don’t have unintended consequences.”

Such consequences already pose several daunting problems.

One of the simpler ones is revising building codes to make it easier to install faster chargers than normal wall sockets, which take eight to 10 hours, as well as devising plug-in friendly requirements for new construction

Charging should be standard practice, not an afterthought, said DEEP’s Gobin. “You bought a house; it had a charger. You pulled into a Wal-Mart; there were chargers in the parking lot,” she said. “This was just the norm of the world.”

Less gasoline tax revenue?

But there are two things that states are already struggling with, though Connecticut has yet to address them. One is how to make up gas tax revenues that are lost because of plug-ins that use little or no gas.

The question is, should plug-in owners have to pay something to make up some of the difference? And if so, how do you structure it so as not to dissuade would-be buyers?

“EV owners should definitely pay their fair share,” LeBel said. “The key is not to give with one hand and then take with the other up front to undercut the work that we’re doing on purchase incentives.”

Plug-ins need to remain substantially cheaper to operate than a conventional car, he and others said.

A charging station at the Mansfield Community Center. The town manager drives an electric car.

A charging station at the Mansfield Community Center. The town manager drives an electric car.

Jim Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, which represents all 267 new car dealers in the state, said his organization was behind putting more plug-ins on the road and noted that most plug-in dealers now allow public access to their chargers. He favored a sales tax waiver as an incentive, but recognized the gas tax issue. “The kiss of death on this whole thing is if public policymakers decide to punish these people,” he said of plug-in vehicle purchasers.

More technical, but equally worrisome to states, is how to structure electricity costs for EV charging. Some see it as a perfect opportunity for so-called smart meters that have different rates for different times of day and different functions.

“We need to start thinking that way with respect to electric vehicles,” Fleming said. “Give them a time-of-use rate. If they decide to charge a car at 3 in the morning, which is the time you ought to do that, you should get a reduced rate.”

Another option is attaching a meter to the charger plug. If that’s done, how do you prevent abuse, such as someone plugging a dryer or another big electricity user into it for a lower rate?

Someone needs to be in charge of all of it, said Navigant’s Gartner, offering Oregon’s system as an example. “It’s not settled by any means,” he said of the gas-tax and electric-rate issues. “Because there are so many different regulatory agencies, it rests in the governor’s office to make sure there’s some coordination.”

And don’t forget the private sector, he said. “All of them need to be asked to put some skin in the game. It can’t just be regulators operating in a vacuum.”

More than any single incentive, however, everyone cited the need for education – both for consumers and car dealers. Consumers are still largely confused about the differences among the various alternative-fuel cars. Dealers may not be able to articulate those specifics adequately. Plug-in stock is often in short supply, and more than a few people noted that electric vehicles are rarely advertised the way other cars are.

At Middletown Nissan, the largest Nissan dealer in the state, Marketing and Business Development Director James Gomes said the dealership leased or sold (mostly leased) 20 to 25 Leafs last year and would likely do the same this year. That’s out of 200 to 250 new and 100 to 125 used cars leased and sold monthly.

Most people ‘not ready’

“There’s only so much we can do as one dealer,” he said, adding that any additional incentives would help. “If the transportation department or DEEP got behind it and did some general publicity, that would help,” he said. “We fully admit that people are not ready. Most people either can’t or are not willing to have this as their main everyday vehicle, simply because they drive more than 80 miles a day.”

As for Volt owner Barry Kresch – he bought a second one a year ago for his wife. He’s also a member of the Westport Electric Car Club, and he often speaks on the subject of electric cars.

“A lot of curious people are coming to ask about the cars,” he said. “But it seems to me there’s a lack of awareness about the various cars. Invariably when I discuss it with people, they part with a comment, ‘I think this is the wave of the future; I need to look into it.’”

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