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 percent of all vehicles registered by 2030. (It’s now less than 2 percent.) 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 1,395 EVs registered in October 2016, 0.3 percent 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 percent. 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, 17 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 percent of passenger vehicles (68,000!) are electric.
Will replacement of internal combustion vehicles 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,” Lesser writes.
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 do the following: 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 percent of all vehicles shall be electric by 20XX.”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.