The recent Vermont Agency of Natural Resources report that revealed a startling rise in Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions highlights how much work remains for us to meet Vermont’s climate-change goals. Transportation accounts for almost half of these emissions, and proposed federal rollbacks of vehicle efficiency standards threaten to force pollution even higher.
One important step in a rural state like Vermont is to find more ways to replace gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones. While not a panacea, electric vehicles produce no emissions from their tail pipes and operate far more efficiently than gasoline-powered engines. As a result, they allow people to travel farther using far less energy and producing far less pollution. When combined with an increasingly renewable electricity grid in Vermont, the climate benefits of more electric vehicles on the road — including cars, buses and trucks — provide a shining glimmer of hope.
So, why aren’t we all driving electric vehicles? At a workshop this past week, Vermont’s Public Utility Commission took a careful look at the barriers that are keeping people from driving electric vehicles and what strategies exist to address these barriers. The day-long workshop, held in preparation for a report due to the Vermont Legislature in July, included presentations from industry, utilities, environmental and consumer interests. A range of participants provided many insights and suggestions. All agreed there are far more opportunities available than are being utilized now.
Cost, access and convenience were all identified repeatedly. Any customer wants to make sure a new car meets his or her needs and will do so better than other options available at a similar price. All customers also want to know they can charge a car easily and not worry that they will be stranded or left someplace with no ability to charge their car.
Making home charging convenient and also making public charging a common feature at places where people work, shop and meet can go a long way to meeting customer needs. New businesses that provide charging should be encouraged to build charging stations. Vermont’s utilities have experience in making sure power lines are where they need to be. They also have a key role to play in helping to make sure more charging stations are available in convenient locations, and providing electricity for charging vehicles at low cost.
If vehicle electrification becomes a solution available only to the wealthy, it will fail. A key feature of how energy efficiency is delivered includes the requirement that investments benefit low-income and middle-class Vermonters. That feature ensures broad participation and broad support. It allows everyone in Vermont to be part of the solution. The same features can ensure broader success and greater use of electric vehicles.
Some of these barriers are more myth than reality. New electric-vehicle models now have a range of 200 miles, which is comparable to most gas-powered cars. They can also be charged at home. People cannot fuel their gasoline car at home. This is an added convenience for electric vehicles. An additional benefit is operating and maintenance costs. With fewer moving parts, electric vehicles need fewer repairs and require less maintenance. And the cost of electricity to power them runs less than half the cost of gasoline.
Our state, city and utilities can also lead by example. They can grow their own fleets of electric vehicles and put more electric city buses and school buses on the road. These fleets can also help provide greater grid stability. They can be moved for charging to locations where renewable energy is plentiful and help reduce the need to build more costly transmission lines that increase everyone’s electricity costs.
Incentives have been successful in the past and will continue to provide value going forward. The benefits to our power grid, our clean air, and our local economy are all values that electric vehicles bring to Vermont. Keeping our Volkswagen pollution settlement money going toward more electric vehicles, coordinating our electric vehicle programs with energy efficiency, and encouraging greater electrification with carbon pricing will deliver the greatest benefits.
There are wide opportunities ahead for electric vehicles to play a far bigger role in providing effective climate-change solutions. The Vermont Public Utility Commission’s work can ensure the broadest and best benefits of electric vehicles in Vermont and make this opportunity a reality.
Sandra Levine is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier.