Colorado Envisions a Million Electric Vehicles on Its Roads

Governor Hickenlooper wants to rev up the transition away from gas power, but there are a few roadblocks to clear.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (left) promoting his Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan in January 2018

Andy Cross/Denver Post/Getty

Electric-powered school buses, hybrid forklifts, and highways lined with charging stations—it’s all coming down the pike in Colorado, according to the state’s ambitious new plan. Five months ago, Governor John Hickenlooper unveiled his “Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan” report, aimed at electrifying several key aspects of the Centennial State’s transportation mix. The plan, developed by the Regional Air Quality Council and Colorado’s energy office, its Department of Public Health and Environment, and its Department of Transportation, outlines a goal of 1 million electric vehicles registered in the state by 2030—no small increase from the roughly 12,000 registered as of October 2017.

It sounds promising. But Colorado shoppers looking for more planet-friendly cars might not find what they are looking for yet, with only about a third of the various EV models on the market available there. Last fall, Minerva Blake, a 40-year-old physical therapist in suburban Denver, went hunting for an electric car to replace her dying 2004 Chrysler Sebring. She’d enjoyed driving her aunt’s Hyundai Ioniq on a recent visit to San Diego and was hoping to find one like it for sale nearby. But after perusing her options on Autotrader.com, she concluded that the nearest one available was more than 800 miles away, also in California.

“I thought the Ioniq was so elegant, I was just charmed by it and the idea of driving a clean car,” she says. “And with the state and federal credits, I could bring the price into my orbit.” Her search for something more local turned up only an electric Ford Focus—“the closest I could find, really, of that sort of vehicle within a reasonable drive here in Colorado.” Unsatisfied with her single option, she has decided to wait and see, she says.

The scarcity of EVs on sale in Colorado, says Noah Long, a legal director in NRDC’s Climate and Clean Energy program, is the result of a major omission in Colorado policy. While the governor did provide some key directives with respect to electrifying the fleets of state, county, city, and school district vehicles, he hasn’t yet introduced new state clean car mandates for automakers. Such requirements have been essential to the sale of EVs in California, which is by far the nation’s largest market for Chevrolet Bolts, Teslas, and Nissan Leafs in the United States. The Golden State boasted more than 365,000 EVs on its roads as of the end of 2017—nearly half of all U.S. sales since 2008—made possible in part because automakers there must sell a percentage of their cars as Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). If Colorado truly plans on getting a million EVs on its roads, it must follow suit, Long says. The health of its residents is at stake, he adds. “Colorado will need to move to zero-emission electric cars, trucks, and buses to enable its residents to breathe clean air.”

Tell automaker CEOs to stand strong for clean car standards

That’s why NRDC and other environmental organizations are launching a campaign this month to persuade the Hickenlooper administration to join 13 other states that have opted into California’s Advanced Clear Car program. Becoming a “ZEV state”—which in Colorado does not require legislative approval—has proved elsewhere to be the most significant factor motivating carmakers to increase their EV marketing and the variety of offerings, says John Gartner, the Denver-based director of the Smart Transportation program for Navigant Research who works closely with the Colorado Electric Vehicle Coalition.

“I’ve had conversations with automakers where they’ve said, ‘Yes, we prioritize ZEV states,’” Gartner says. “When they come out with a new electric vehicle, they get to those states first and in larger quantities.” Whereas 41 models are available in a place like California, only about 25 are currently on the market for customers in Colorado. “If Colorado wants to get to a certain volume, then becoming a ZEV state will, in and of itself, increase the supply of electric vehicles from the automakers into the state,” says Gartner.

Despite the limited offerings, there is clearly an appetite for the cars in the Centennial State, which has the sixth-largest market share of EVs in the country. In part, consumers have been motivated by various tax credits as well as a $5,000 point-of-sale discount on EVs, which ranks as the nation’s most generous rebate of its kind.

Reporters test-driving new Toyota prototype electric and fuel cell vehicles at NREL's Sustainable Mobility Seminar

Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Advocates like Long hope Hickenlooper will want to maintain the momentum and seal his legacy as the state’s electrification pioneer before he leaves office at the end of 2018. Hickenlooper could encourage the governor-appointed Air Quality Control Commission within his administration to adopt ZEV standards, Long says. He could then ensure that by 2025, about 10 percent of new cars sold in Colorado fall into the zero-emissions category, which would guarantee that consumers like Blake have more options to consider.

“We expect that, given that the governor only has seven more months in office . . . he’ll have to propose something within the next month or so,” Long says. “State agencies already have the authority and, I think, the responsibility to clean up the air and adopt Advanced Clean Car standards.”

The Hickenlooper plan does identify several barriers to adoption for EV sales in the state. These include a lack of public charging stations along highways, particularly those designed as “fast charging,” which can provide more than 60 miles of range in 10 to 30 minutes. Adding more of these convenient public stations along roadways, in office complexes, and in neighborhoods is in the works, funded by a chunk of the $68.7 million the state expects to receive from a national settlement with Volkswagen. (The settlement, a result of the carmaker’s diesel emissions cheating scandal, includes more than $4 billion split among 44 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico for use in environmental mitigation and to promote zero-emissions technology adoption.)

Colorado will use another portion of its cut to replace its current transit buses with greener vehicles that run on electricity or other gasoline alternatives such as compressed natural gas, propane, or hybrid technology. It will also replace as many as 450 trucks, school and shuttle buses, railroad freight switchers, airport ground support equipment, and certain construction equipment.

A hybrid electric and alternative fuel–powered bus in downtown Denver

Stephen Saks Photography/Alamy

The state is also looking outside its borders to support EV drivers in the greater Rockies and the Southwest. Last year, Hickenlooper signed the Regional Electric Vehicle West Memorandum of Understanding, committing Colorado to work with Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming to develop 7,000 miles of interstate corridors across the Intermountain region with plentiful charging stations.

In the meantime, to fill those roadways the way Hickenlooper envisions, state ZEV requirements will be critical, say advocates like Gartner. Without them, automakers don’t have the incentive to sell more EVs, and the reason is simple, he says: Car companies generally lose money on electric vehicles, so they focus on making them available in states where they have quotas to fill. Similarly, Gartner adds, “dealerships make less on the vehicles in terms of fewer repairs because they need less maintenance and they last longer” than cars with internal combustion engines. “There are fewer moving parts, no belts to replace, the brakes wear out less. The vehicles aren’t coming back every 3,000 miles for oil changes.”

In an era when our federal government is rolling back landmark clean car standards, any advances in the adoption of EVs are likely to come from the states, Long says. “It’s become crystal clear in Colorado and a number of other states that the ball is in their court.” After all, when it comes to clean air and our clean energy economy, “the feds have abdicated leadership on those issues,” he adds. Meanwhile, environment- and budget-conscious motorists like Blake await further steps from Denver before joining the other proud owners of more than 750,000 EVs on U.S. roads.

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