The Future Of Electric Vehicles In Boston: Impact On Energy And Profitability – Back in 2014, government officials calculated the number of gas-powered cars that would need to be taken off the road and replaced with cleaner, greener options to meet climate goals.
By 2020, they said, there should be a total of more than 169,000 electric cars in the country. By 2025, that number would have to rise to 300,000.
- 1 The Future Of Electric Vehicles In Boston: Impact On Energy And Profitability
- 2 All New Vehicles Sold In Massachusetts Must Be Electric By 2035
The Future Of Electric Vehicles In Boston: Impact On Energy And Profitability
As of last month, only 51,431 electric passenger vehicles were registered in Massachusetts, less than a quarter of the goal. Only about 31,000 of them were fully electric. The rest, plug-in hybrids, use gas after the batteries run down.
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That’s a critical setback on the road to a clean future, climate advocates and lawmakers say. The promising policies introduced – a rebate program to encourage consumers to switch to electricity and a plan to install numerous charging points across the state – were insufficient, underfunded and allowed to languish. The result is that the road from here to where we need to be will be longer and steeper than ever planned.
“The state is not doing enough,” said Sen. Mike Barrett, lead author of the state’s climate bill. “No one chose to own this.”
Converting a large number of the state’s 4.3 million gas-powered cars to electric is one of Massachusetts’ most pressing climate tasks as it looks to a 2030 deadline to cut emissions in half from 1990 levels, set by the Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy law. Cars account for about a fifth of all the state’s carbon emissions, and advocates, lawmakers and other experts say that if Massachusetts doesn’t quickly address its problems, including improving mass transit and completely discouraging driving, it may not meet the goals set for the end of the decade.
“It has to be a World War II effort,” said Susan Buchan, director of energy projects at E4TheFuture, a Framingham-based clean energy policy consultancy. “There has to be mobilization and real leadership at the government level.”
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Government officials say they have been held back by obstacles beyond their control, including supply chain problems that have made electric vehicles more difficult and expensive, and a pandemic that has changed consumer habits for more than two years. They admitted that efforts to develop electric vehicles are lagging behind, but they remain optimistic.
“We think the curve is one of those typical types of clean energy curves where it starts slow and then suddenly goes up,” said Energy and Environment Secretary Kathleen Theoharides. “But we have work to do to make sure it grows.”
Charging stations like the one in Somerville need to be ubiquitous enough to overcome drivers’ fears of being stranded far from home with a dead battery. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Key to the state’s efforts is a rebate program that critics say is flawed. Rebates have proven to be a very effective motivator in other states, in part because they can bring the price of electric cars close to the price of gas vehicles. But Massachusetts’ $2,500 rebate doesn’t fill that gap, experts say, even when paired with a rebate the federal government offers for some vehicles.
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As a result, the program largely attracts wealthier car buyers and excludes a much larger segment of the population that cannot now afford an electric vehicle, experts say. A 2021 analysis by StreetsBlog, a clean transportation news site, found that since the program began in 2014, 79 percent of its rebates went to residents who lived in zip codes where incomes were above the state median.
In contrast, successful programs in other states have attracted large numbers of buyers by taking steps to make electric vehicles more affordable for poorer residents. Oregon, for example, which has one of the highest electric vehicle ownership rates in the country, offers higher rebates to low- and moderate-income residents, up to $7,500. It also gives discounts for used electric cars, whose prices are much lower than new ones. Massachusetts does neither. And while Massachusetts buyers must wait to pay off their cars to claim the rebate, states including New Jersey and New York allow the rebate to be taken off the price immediately.
“A lot of people won’t be able to have that seed capital,” said Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation. “The point of purchase is the key part.”
Introducing such changes would dramatically increase the number of rebates given by the state, say experts. And of course, that would require more money for a program that has already “struggled to get the funding it needs on a consistent basis,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a consumer advocacy organization.
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It has struggled in part because it was financed not from the state budget or some other large, reliable source, but from smaller funds that vary from year to year, experts say. One source of money is fees paid by power plants when they exceed emission caps, which rise when demand for energy is high and fall when demand is low. Another source is the penalties that utilities pay when they miss renewable energy targets, which also vary from year to year.
To meet the goal of 300,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, the country will need 21,000 chargers for people to use when they are outside their homes, National Grid estimates. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Adding to that uncertainty is the whim of the Legislature, which must vote to approve appropriations for the rebate program when cash runs out. In January 2019, after a surge in demand for rebates, the program was forced to cut costs by reducing rebates to $1,500. When the money finally ran out in late September of that year, the legislature didn’t act fast enough, and within three months the program was completely shut down. Sales of electric vehicles fell more than 51 percent from December 2018 to January 2019, according to sales data from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group for auto companies.
“Stopping and starting programs is not good for consumer confidence,” said Kyle Murray, senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.
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As of January 2020, the program is back online, but its funding remains unstable and will need a vote by the Legislature by the end of June to continue operating.
Last week, lawmakers introduced a comprehensive climate bill in the Senate that proposes funding the program with $100 million from the federal American Savings Act, increasing the rebate to $3,500, with an additional $1,000 for buyers selling a gas-powered vehicle, and allowing buyers to use their rebate picked up at the point of sale. But those offers will have to survive the reconciliation process with a bill before potentially becoming law.
Meanwhile, another essential building block of the future of electric vehicles is just as late: charging stations. They need to be ubiquitous enough to overcome drivers’ fears of being stranded far from home with a dead battery.
To meet the goal of 300,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, the state will need 21,000 chargers for people to use when they’re away from their homes, according to estimates by National Grid, the utility company that has a state-approved plug-in charger program.
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This will almost never succeed. To increase these numbers, the state relies on private companies and employers and large institutions like universities to pay for their installation.
But so far relatively few have responded. They don’t see an urgent need, what with the lack of electric cars on the road, said Jake Navarro, National Grid’s director of clean transportation programs.
For its part, the state offers discounts on the costs of installing chargers as an incentive. But those programs, like those offering auto rebates, are mostly funded by limited sources, such as the $11.25 million the state received from a 2017 settlement in the Volkswagen diesel emissions fraud case.
The state did not respond to a request for interviews with officials familiar with these programs and their financing. But according to the state, a rebate program that covers a full $50,000 for the fastest chargers, which can recharge a car’s battery in hours, stopped accepting applications in March 2021. And the online application site for another rebate program, for a slower, much cheaper type of charger, warns that applications will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until all available funds are used up.
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Regardless of the limitations these programs may face, experts say it’s critical to the state’s mission to find incentives that work. “We need to put a million cars on the road, and for that companies will have to say it’s worth it,” said Buchan of E4TheFuture.
Later this year, the state Department of Public Utilities is expected to decide whether to allow the state’s largest electric utilities to use funds from a small surcharge on customers’ bills to
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