McClaughry: Vermont’s electric vehicle future

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.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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.

Images courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR and John McClaughry

6 thoughts on “McClaughry: Vermont’s electric vehicle future

  1. The small vehicle drivers should pay an additional fee, they obviously don’t carry their fair share of cargo and the tiny cars aren’t safe, the rest of us end up paying more for health care and insurance to supplement these feel good drivers.

  2. The all-knowing state bureaucrats, working together with self-styled transportation gurus, and RE activists, want to force people to drive electric vehicles.

    The same folks pushing for a unilateral carbon tax also are pushing for plug-in EVs and plug-in hybrids, including light duty vehicles, LDVs, buses and trucks. Never mind the plug-in buses and trucks are still in their infancy.

    Vermont, with chronic budget deficits, must have money to burn on various follies.

    Because of their short electric range, plug-in EVs are next to useless in Vermont, especially in winter, on cold days, with snow and ice and no 4-wheel drive.
    If they had larger batteries, 85 – 100 kWh, and 4-wheel drive, such as a Tesla, they would have ample range, but be more expensive.

    The only approach that makes sense in New England is PLUG-IN HYBRIDS with 10 – 15 kWh batteries.
    They would have an electric range of about 30 – 45 miles, and then automatically switch to gas for another 400 – 500 miles.
    Public charging stations would not be required; owners would charge at home.

    Market Penetration: Here are some facts on plug-ins (EVs and plug-in hybrids)

    The number of plug-ins on US roads has increased during the past 6 years.
    Plug-in sales were about 200,000, or 1.2% of all LDV sales at end 2017.
    Almost 50% of US plug-in sales in 2017 were in California.

    Plug-ins increased from 88 in July 2012 to 1522 in January 2016.
    Pure EVs totaled 330, about 330/1522 = 22% of all plug-ins.
    The plug-in increase was about 1522 – 1113 = 409 from Jan. 2015 to Jan. 2016.
    Total plug-in total was about 2000 at end 2017
    New vehicle registrations were 41000 in 2016.
    Plug-in registration was about 409/41000 = 1.0% of all new vehicle registrations.
    The Comprehensive Energy Plan goal is 4700 new plug-in registrations in 2025. See page 164 of CEP.

    People favor hybrids over EVs, because EVs just do not have the range and are terrible performers under Vermont winter conditions.

    Plug-in All Electric Vehicle:
    Driving an all electric vehicle in winter, with snow and ice, and hills, and dirt roads, and mud season, and at low temperature, say – 10 C, with the heat pumps heating the battery and the passenger cabin, would be very sluggish going, unless the EV had a large capacity, kWh, battery, such as a Tesla Model S. The additional stress would cause increased battery aging and capacity loss.

    There are EVs, such as the Tesla Model S, $80,000-$100,000, with 85 – 100 kWh batteries, which offer road-clearance adjustment and all-wheel drive as options, but they are out of reach of almost all Vermonters.

  3. Been a bunch of Tesla battery fires and fatalities in last few weeks. Really. And GMP wants to mount these on our houses. What could possibly go wrong?

  4. When EVs are competitive with IC vehicles, market forces will accomplish the transition. Right now, they’re practical for high-use low mile stop-and-go vehicles like city delivery services, meter readers, mail delivery etc. There were electric delivery vehicles in NYC over a half century ago, and they were pre WW II vehicles. What they’re pushing right now is like trying to force air travel to displace ships – with the Wright Flyer. Let the market decide. What spelled the end for large heavy station wagons – average car fuel economy standards? What happened? Trucks. Look at the market today for SUVs. Because the market existed for large capacity heavy vehicles.

  5. This is just another Liberal pipedream. If you only use these electric vehicles for around
    town maybe they would have a place. Here in Vermont with ten months of nasty weather and living outside a large city, well these things are a joke. We have potholes that will
    eat these cars up in one winter.

    And when Government passes an initiative and they all run around in Gas Guzzling vehicles
    what a crock.

    Why not just fix the roads so we don’t have to stop & go ( waste gas ) to avoid all the potholes.

    • This isn’t really about the EV’s but, just drove from Colchester to Burlington through Winooski. These roads are a disgrace.

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