Tesla lobbies outside the state Capitol. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Imagine you’re mired in heavy traffic on I-95 on a steamy summer day, with plenty of time to study the car ahead of you. Something puzzles you about it, but you’re not sure what.

After staring for a long minute, you realize — aha — that it has no tailpipe. It is an electric car. You are tailing a Tesla.

If you’ve not yet had this experience, you soon will.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are catching on in Connecticut. Beginning with just a handful seven years ago, there are now an estimated 6,500 to 7,000 electric vehicles in the state, including both pure battery electrics (BEVs), such as the Tesla, and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), which are powered by batteries with a back-up gasoline engine, such as the Kia Optima Plug-In, among other makes and models.

A Tesla official testified before the General Assembly in March that more than 3,000 Connecticut residents had placed reservations to buy the company’s new Model 3.

While this still represents a minuscule percentage of the state’s 3.1 million registered vehicles, the momentum is building.  Nationally, sales of new plug-in electrics have risen from just over 17,000 in 2011 to just under 200,000 in 2017, and sales figures from the first six months of 2018 are 40 percent higher than those from the first half of 2017, according to the industry website InsideEVs.

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Advocates think electric passenger vehicles are the vanguard of a technological revolution that will help clean the air, slow the pace of climate change and, over time, end the reign of the internal combustion engine.  The electric vehicle represents “a fundamentally better technology,” said Joel Levin, executive director of Plug-In America, a national organization of electric car drivers.

“The ramp-up has already started and it is irreversible,” said Bruce Becker of Fairfield, a prominent developer, Tesla driver, and president of the EV Club of Connecticut. In June he unveiled 29 EV charging stations at his high-rise apartment building at 777 Main in Hartford, making it the state’s largest concentration of electric vehicle chargers.

Becker and others believe the only question about the electric car revolution is how fast it will happen. In Connecticut, one factor will be whether the General Assembly allows direct sales of Teslas, the state’s most popular EV.

Bruce Becker and his Tesla.

Nationally, the question is whether the Trump administration tries to pull the plug.

Hartford made them

Battery-powered vehicles are hardly a new idea. They were invented in the mid-19th century and remained the most popular non-equine means of vehicle propulsion for decades.

At the turn of the 20th century there were more battery-powered cars on the roads than gas-powered buggies, according to “Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future” by Daniel Sperling, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Davis and founding director of the school’s Institute of Transportation Studies.

Indeed, battery powered cars were produced by the Pope Manufacturing Co. in Hartford, which also produced the famed Columbia bicycle.

But those early lead-acid batteries were primitive and expensive. Technological improvements came much more quickly with the internal combustion engine, Sperling reports. With the advent of Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, the gasoline engines were in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

Electric motors were relegated to the fringes of the 20th century automotive age; used for such things as forklifts in factories, where range was not an issue but air quality was.

From time to time someone would resurrect the idea of an electric car, only to conclude it was too risky and expensive. The 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” recounted GM’s short-loved experiment with a prototype electric, the EV1.

The development of the lighter, less expensive and more powerful lithium-ion battery opened the door to the modern era of electric cars. Tesla led the charge.

Tesla brings new energy

“Tesla resuscitated the EV,” says Sperling.

Just a decade ago, Elon Musk founded the company and soon produced the Tesla Roadster, a snappy sports coupe powered by lithium-ion batteries that could outrace most gas-powered sports cars. It was, you might say, the torque of the town. The only problem was the sticker price, which began at $109,000 in 2009, according to Car & Driver.

Levin believes the current generation of electric cars began in late 2010-2011 with the release of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf, a pure battery electric, both aimed at the mass market.

The Tesla Model S Tesla – Timothy Artman

Tesla was hardly out of the picture; it came out with the revolutionary Model S in 2012, with a raft of innovations and a 270-mile range. But, the price began at $70,000.

Virtually all car companies have since gotten into the game; there are now more than 40 models of electric cars for sale. The cost of batteries, and hence the cost of cars, has come down dramatically. Advocates think there will be a tipping point, perhaps in the middle of the next decade, when EVs and gasoline cars are priced competitively without subsidies, and large numbers of drivers begin going electric.

The pluses

A number of factors make electric vehicles attractive to drivers and policy-makers, including environmental and climate impact.

Tailpipe pollution from cars, trucks and buses degrades air quality and can exacerbate a number of health issues. EVs have no tailpipes and thus no tailpipe emissions, a reason countries such as China and India with badly polluted cities are embracing EVs. A switch to electric cars will also make cities quieter.

The climate impact is also significant which, given the most recent prediction from the UN climate report, could be integral to the continued popularity of EVs. That report, released on Oct. 8, predicts worsening food shortages, wildfires and coral reef die-offs from climate change by 2040 if decisive action isn’t begun immediately to slow the production of greenhouse gasses.

In addition to ground-level pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, the transportation sector is a major contributor of greenhouse gasses, predominantly carbon dioxide, that most scientists believe are playing havoc with the planet.

According to the Connecticut Electric Vehicle Coalition, an alliance of environmental, utility, labor and business groups, an EV in Connecticut is responsible for 75 percent less greenhouse gas pollution than a comparable gasoline vehicle. As the grid becomes decarbonized, that figure will improve. Electric cars powered by renewables such as wind or solar leave no carbon tire tracks.

Other factors that speak in their favor include convenience, lower operating and fuel costs,  and, well, fun.

Dawn Henry, a Westport businesswoman and Tesla driver, said most efforts at personal energy conservation involve some kind of sacrifice, such as taking fewer flights or buying a smaller house. But driving her EV involves “no sacrifice.”

A Tesla at a charging station in Greenwich. Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

On the issue of convenience, an estimated 80 percent of EV owners charge their cars at home, according to a survey by the charging industry research group PlugInsights. So instead of pulling into the gas station and pumping gas, they plug in at night and unplug in the morning. Also, with fewer moving parts, an EV requires less maintenance than a gas vehicle. There is no need for an oil change when there is no oil to change.

Finally, for those who care more about their bottom line than the other factors, the lower fuel costs are significant. According to the electric vehicle coalition, the cost of the electricity needed to power an EV is the equivalent of paying $1.35 per gallon of gas. EV owners are mostly spared the fluctuations of the petroleum market, foreign and domestic.

So, why isn’t everyone driving an EV?

The challenges

A major challenge to widespread adoption of electric cars is “range anxiety”  — the fear that a battery charge will run out before the driver reaches a charging station. Certainly no one wants to be left by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere as night is falling and the coyotes begin to howl.

But two trends are lessening this anxiety. For one, the range of battery-powered electrics is increasing, as batteries improve. (Range isn’t a problem for plug-in hybrids, they switch to the gas engine when the battery charge runs out). Teslas always had good range; the Model 3 has a 220-mile range, and the company offers two longer-range models that will go 260 and 310 miles, respectively, on a single charge.

The first iteration of most other pure battery electrics had much more modest ranges, less than 100 miles. But those numbers are improving, said Levin. The Chevrolet Bolt, all-electric cousin of the hybrid Volt, has a range of 238 miles; the Nissan Leaf will go 151 miles. Both would easily cover most commutes in this state on a single charge.

Also, Connecticut has a network of more than 300 public charging stations at 150 locations, with apps and maps showing where they are and whether they are in use. Several environmental groups are working with the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to find ways for utility companies to increase both the number and power of charging stations, said Claire Coleman of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, one of the groups.

Eversource,  the region’s largest energy provider, has just begun a five-year, $45 million program to install charging infrastructure across Massachusetts. Coleman would like to see a similar commitment in Connecticut.

Eversource spokeswoman Tricia Modifica said her company is in talks with Connecticut officials about more charging opportunities: ”Stay tuned.”

On Aug. 1, Eversource announced Nissan’ offer of a $5,000 rebate for Eversource customers who bought new Leafs by Sept. 30. Though the company has no similar program in the works with other EV manufacturers, it’s not unreasonable to expect more cooperation between electric utility companies and the EV industry.

“Utilities are awakening to the fact that the electrics cars could be their biggest new market since air-conditioning,” said Levin. And much charging is done at night, when the grid has plenty of capacity. (Charging in multi-unit buildings not owned by Becker or like-minded landlords is an issue; some municipalities are rewriting building codes to require charging infrastructure.)

Most of this home charging is done with 240-volt, Level 2 chargers that take four to eight hours to fully charge an EV, which works fine overnight. Coleman and other advocates would like to see more of these in parking garages and other public places, and more Level 3 DC fast chargers along highways so EV drivers can get half-hour charges on longer trips. (Tesla has it own network of 10 “superchargers” in Connecticut, with six more on the way.)

Sticker shock

Another prohibitive issue is purchase price.  Though less expensive to operate and maintain, EVs are more expensive to buy. “As it is,” Sperling writes, “pure battery electric cars cost about $10,000 more to manufacture than comparable gasoline cars.”

That is largely due to the cost of the battery. But battery prices have been falling dramatically, and consequently the price of EVs has fallen as well. With the $7,500 federal tax credit and a state rebate of up to $3,000 available to EV buyers, several electric models, including Nissans, Fords, Hyundais and Volkswagens, are in the $20,000 range.  Used Nissan Leafs can be had for less than $10,000.

On the luxury end, Tesla says it will have a basic version of its Model 3 for sale at $35,000. It’s not yet available; three more expensive Model 3s, ranging in price from $49,000 to $64,000, are currently being sold, a company spokeswoman said.

Levin thinks many EVs already are cost competitive with comparable gas-powered vehicles, if the reduced costs of fuel and maintenance over the lifetime of the car are factored in. At least one study supports him.

Public awareness

Another issue impeding the spread of electric vehicles is simply that a lot of people either don’t know they exist, or have misperceptions about them, which has led to a stepped-up effort to educate the public.

The EV Club of Connecticut, formerly the Westport EV Club (the first wave of Connecticut EV buyers were largely from Fairfield County) has show-and-tell events around the state almost monthly, including several connected to National Drive Electric Week in early September.

Last March, automakers and Northeast states, including Connecticut, formed a partnership called Drive Change. Drive Electric. to spread the word, via social media, advertising, events and other programs, about electric cars.

Increasing consumer interest is important, industry experts say, and might be what saves electric vehicles from the Trump administration’s proposed rollback of environmental regulations.

Emission mission

On Aug. 2, McClatchy reported that the Trump administration proposed freezing rules that “require automakers to build cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids and electric vehicles.“

The proposal would freeze fuel economy at a 37 miles-per-gallon fleet average from 2020 through 2026, down from the 50 miles per gallon goal set by the Obama administration.

It also challenges California’s authority to set its own greenhouse gas restrictions on cars, “including a mandate that automakers sell a certain number of electric cars in California.”

Beset with smog in the last century caused largely by tailpipe emissions, California used its size and political muscle to impose tough air quality standards. It jump-started the modern electric car movement by requiring automakers to sell a certain percentage of electrics — BEVs, PHEVs or fuel cell electrics — or buy credits from companies (such as Tesla) that do. In 2013 Connecticut joined eight other states in adopting what is called the California zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate.

Coleman said Trump’s effort to weaken the clean air program “is an attack on Connecticut’s right to protect the health of our citizens as ensured under the Clean Air Act.”

The Trump plan is being vigorously challenged in court by California and nearly 20 other states. But if it prevails, it could lessen the incentive for automakers to produce ZEVs.

That would be unfortunate, because electric passenger vehicles can play a vital role in cleaning Connecticut’s air, said DEEP assistant director of air management Paul Farrell.

Climate change

About 50 percent of man-made pollutants emitted in Connecticut and the Northeast come from “mobile sources,” mostly vehicles.  Though the state’s air quality has improved significantly in the past 30 years, Connecticut still endured 23 “ozone exceedance” (read: bad air) days in this year’s warm season (some pollutants waft in from over states, which argues for regional solutions).

Also, more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state come from the transportation sector, making it the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Connecticut officials have accepted the overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gasses are trapping heat in the atmosphere, which is leading to more frequent and severe storms, fires and droughts. The state adopted the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, which establishes greenhouse gas reduction goals for Connecticut of 10 percent below 1991 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 2001 levels by 2050.

Connecticut is also one of nine states that pledged to adopt policies and infrastructure that will put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the roads of the participating states by 2025.

To that end, Connecticut offers a rebate (from monies paid the state from the Northeast Utilities — NSTAR merger several years ago) of up to $3,000 to EV buyers and $5,000 for fuel cell electrics, of which there are only a handful in the state. Also, the Connecticut Green Bank offers low-interest loans for some EV purchases.

Connecticut’s share of the 3.3 million is 150,000 ZEVs on the road by 2025, with a subsequent goal of 500,000 by 2030. Were that pace of ZEV adoption to continue, a study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that by 2050, the state would net a cumulative benefit of $3.2 billion — $1.9 billion from reduced vehicle operating costs, $500 million from reduced utility bills, and $800 million in societal benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions

The UN report says action in the next 10 years to decarbonize the planet is essential to avoiding ecological disaster.  A half-million electric cars on Connecticut’s roads would certainly help. But is it possible?

Car of the future?

The shift from gas to electric vehicles is likely to happen, indeed may already be happening, according to Sperling and other experts, but it is hard to gauge the pace of it.  A car is a major investment and people tend to keep them for several years, or longer.

The country with the highest per capita penetration of EVs is Norway. The country’s parliament created a major series of incentives — no sales tax, no tolls, free municipal parking, etc. — for EVs beginning in the 1990s and saw a big surge in EV purchases from 2010 to 2018, when EVs accounted for 47 percent of light-duty vehicle sales.

Also, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research group, foresees a global surge in electric cars and buses.

In its 2018 Electric Vehicle Outlook, BNEF predicts sales of electric vehicles “increasing from a record 1.1 million worldwide in 2017, to 11 million in 2025 and then surging to 30 million in 2030 as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion engine cars. China will lead this transition, with sales there accounting for almost 50 percent of the global EV market in 2025.”

By 2040, BNEF predicts 55 percent of all new car sales and 33 percent of the global fleet will be electric. That would be revolutionary.

Taxes, Tesla, fuel cells

There are, however, a few issues Connecticut must work through.

For one, it is not yet clear what role hydrogen fuel cell electric cars will play in the shift away from internal combustion. There are only a few in the state, perhaps because there is only one public refueling station, located in Wallingford. But another will soon open in Hartford, and a third is in the pipeline for New Haven.

Fuel cell cars have attractive characteristics; they charge quickly and have great range. California, with a more elaborate hydrogen highway, has nearly 5,000 of them on the road, along with some 400,000 BEVs and PHEVs.

Then there is the Tesla dilemma. Tesla is the most popular EV in Connecticut, accounting for 26 percent of the state’s fleet, according to data gathered by the EV Club of CT. But you can’t buy them here.

Tesla’s business model is to sell directly to customers, not go through a dealer. Most states allow this, including all that border Connecticut. But Connecticut does not, and for four years, the car dealers have fought off efforts by Tesla to change the law.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the legislature’s energy & technology and transportation committees, said he believes the state should allow Tesla to do business here. He said embrace of electric cars “is central to Connecticut’s political will to focus on climate change.” He noted that limiting access to the popular EV is costing the state money.

Tesla estimates that the state loses as much as $5 million in sales taxes from residents who buy Teslas in other states, particularly New York. For all the controversy that sometimes swirls around the company, its cars are hugely popular — the Model 3s are selling as fast as they can make them.

Also, if hundreds of state residents a month keep buying EVs, it may occur to someone in the General Assembly that these drivers are not paying the state’s gasoline tax. This may force the lawmakers to reconsider the state’s transportation tax structure. They might consider a carbon tax of some type, or perhaps end Connecticut’s distinction of being the only state on the Eastern seaboard without highway tolls.

The state has made progress in reducing air pollution. New transit options in the central part of the state have taken some cars off the road. Programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative have driven cleaner power generation. We are beginning to see cleaner and greener buildings, important for health and productivity as well as reduced pollution, Steinberg said. But there is still work to do.

Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill this year committing the state to a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from the 2001 level by 2030. Electric vehicles, and lower carbon electricity to fuel them, ” are, and certainly will be going into the future, a significant source of greenhouse gas reductions,” said DEEP’s Farrell.

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.

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