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Blazing an Electric Trail: Boulder County at the Forefront of a Nationwide Effort to Spread EVs


transportation_1Three years ago, when RJ Harrington leased his first purely electric, emission-less, utterly silent vehicle, he was of a unique breed. When his gray Nissan Leaf purred about the Front Range, he’d wave at people who drove similar novelties, and they would return the fraternal gesture. Things have changed. These days, an electric vehicle in Boulder County is more house cat than cougar: a fairly common sight.

“People don’t wave as much anymore,” said Harrington, noting how a once intimate community of EV drivers-a wave sent saw a wave returned-has blossomed into something less quaint. He’d rather have more EVs on the road than returned pleasantries.

Harrington, who is in the EV equipment supply business, is on his second Leaf—this one a deep royal blue—vows to “never ever” purchase a conventional gas-guzzler again.

And while EVs have yet to really gobble up a sizeable slice of the entire vehicle market nationwide—a mere 2.87% of all vehicles sold in 2015 were pure electric, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association—they have indeed caught fire on the Front Range.

“You have a very green minded community of early adopters, and you have a sweet spot of the perfect private, public partnership,” explained Susie Strife, Sustainability Coordinator for Boulder County.

Late last August, the Benefits Boulder County program (Strife’s brainchild), offered county residents a bone to go electric with a steep price reduction of the Nissan Leaf. The county partnered with Boulder Nissan, which cut $8,300 off the original price point of a 2015 Leaf, one of the already more affordable EV options on the market.

The inaugural effort saw Leaf sales rise dramatically: 248 vehicles were sold over a four-month period, September to December, up from 52 over the same timeframe in 2014. In fact, five percent of Leafs sold nationwide last year could be attributed to Boulder County.

Strife became one of the program’s first participants when she traded in her Honda CR-V for a Leaf. “It’s guilt free driving,” she said.

Benefits Boulder County has provided a model for other EV incentive programs throughout the country, with communities in Minnesota, Ohio, Utah and elsewhere in Colorado implementing similar plans.

A second iteration of the program is expected to run from April to June of this year. Boulder Nissan will remain a participant, and BMW i3’s will sell at $4,300 off the standard price. Participating bike dealers will be offering discounts on electric models as well.

The most successful countries in terms of EV adoption—including America—have one thing in common: strong government incentives.

Incentives for EVs are a multi-tiered system, from the federal level to the state level to the community level. BoCo is wading in uncharted territory in terms of community wide incentive efforts.

At the top: The Obama administration offers up to $7,500 in tax credits to people who purchase or lease EVs, and recently proposed legislation to increase the cap to $10,000. Congress has yet to act on the proposal.

America has the largest total volume of EVs on the road worldwide, according to Business Insider (14,831 as of 2015), with China a near second at 12,555. But while America has the highest number of EVs silently cruising its streets, it is ranked fourth in terms of percentage of total cars on the road being purely electric. Norway is first with 33.1% of its drivers pushing an electric fueled pedal.


transportation_2State Fueled Growth

Statewide tax credits and direct rebates, HOV lane access and other EV incentives are in place across the nation. Colorado offers a tax credit of up to $6,000—one of the nation’s highest—which has led to a high level of EV adoptions.

According to a study conducted by the Colorado Energy Office, there were 3,112 electric vehicles registered in Colorado as of February 2014. California leads the nation by a wide margin, with 191,650 EVs registered through 2015, nearly half the country’s total.

“There is a definite correlation between incentives and EV adoption”, said Bentley Clinton, a PhD student in Economics at CU-Boulder and economic analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

He and his colleagues at NREL conducted a study that looked at state level incentives, and how they affect EV adoption rates. Their first study used data from 2011-2013, while an updated examination used figures from 2010-2014.

The first round of analysis concluded that for every $1,000 a state offers in incentives (via tax credits or rebates), a three percent increase in EV adoption would follow. The updated study showed a higher increase: nine percent for every $1,000 incentive. The values are based on averages across all 50 states. Their study did not examine each individual statewide policy.

Clinton is hopeful about the positive correlation his study showed between statewide incentives and EV adoption rates, but cautionary about what that means in the long-term.

“Most of the individuals that are adopting these vehicles are the early adopters. What happens once we move into the bulk of consumers?” he said.


transportation_3Long-term Investment, Short Range Anxiety

The only time Will Toor drives his 1993 Honda Civic is when he embarks on a lengthy trip into the desert or mountains. Otherwise, he walks, bikes, or hops on a bus.

Toor is the director of the transportation program at Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP. The Boulder based outfit promotes energy efficiency projects throughout the entire southwest region: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Former mayor of Boulder, Toor is a believer in a strong federal, statewide and community level role in incentivizing EVs, but also sees research and development investment as an important piece in the larger EV adoption puzzle.

“It’s going to take a combination of technological improvements and public policy,” he said. “Long term, these kinds of investments will really pay off for the nation and the world.”

EV sales have certainly spiked nationwide in response to fiscal incentives put forth by the federal government, and have skyrocketed in communities with incentive programs in place like Boulder County. But for plug-in automobiles to really make a dent, Toor said, more needs to be done to ease “range anxiety”.

“We can invest in a fast charging network among highway corridors to assure people that if they need to they can fill up in 15 minutes and be ready to go,” he said.

A fully charged Tesla Model S can travel 208 or 286 miles (depending on whether you shell out $71,000 or $91,000), which tops the range potential for all EV models at the moment. In late March, Tesla announced a 2017 release for their Model 3, which is expected to have a single charge capacity of 215 miles, at $35,000 a pop, on the more affordable side of EVs. As of this writing, 180,000 of Tesla’s Model 3 have been ordered.

Toor said that in order to increase battery efficiency and range-which will decrease cost of manufacturing and therefore cost of purchasing-a game changing breakthrough is less likely than a series of baby steps. “What we keep seeing is incremental improvements”, he said. Hence the sluggish processes of increasing range capability.

“The major component is the battery,” said Dave Howell, the Hybrid Electric Systems Program Manager of the Vehicle Technologies Office, a Department of Energy organ.

Lithium-ion batteries, Howell explained, consist of a combination of materials: nickel, cobalt and manganese. These chemicals are effective, but replacing them with more efficient metals will lead to more efficient batteries.

“If you can double (battery) capacity, you only need half the power to do the same job. This would reduce the cost of the battery by improving the capacity of each cell,” Howell said, acknowledging that this would reduce the price point of EVs at the consumer end as well.

Cost is perhaps the most pertinent obstacle for prospective EV consumers, and current ambassadors of electric vehicles are high earners. A study was conducted by Boulder County following the conclusion of the Benefits Boulder County program last fall. Of 122 respondents, thirty nine percent earned between $100,000 and $150,000 dollars a year. Twenty five percent reported annual earnings of over $150,000 dollars.

And while EVs are indeed among the most costly of any type of vehicle on the market, Boulder County and Boulder Nissan sought to offer an alternative with the Leaf price cut.

To Nigel Zeid, the leading sales and leasing professional at Boulder Nissan, education and outreach are the key ingredients to an EV takeover.

“Education is what it’s all about,” said Zeid, who saw a quadrupling of Nissan Leaf sales during last year’s initiative. “There are a lot of misconceptions about electric vehicles.”

Zeid, a passionate ambassador of EVs (he’s been driving a silver Leaf for six years), said he receives a lot of questions from customers who are weary of EVs because of their perceived lack of range potential. The Leaf can provide up to 107 miles on a single charge.

Range anxiety pervades the conscience of curious EV customers, so Zeid prods them with pragmatic questions: “How far is your commute? Can you charge at work or at home?” He wants to get to the root of their driving needs, which he hopes will dispel any misconceptions about EVs.

He also stressed the need for companies and public institutions—hospitals, airports, popular attractions—to invest in EV charging stations.


Low Maintenance

Electric vehicles are a mechanic’s worst nightmare: they rarely require maintenance.

A typical internal combustion engine has a slew of moving parts, hundreds even, which leaves room for a buffet of issues: misfiring spark plugs, overheating, complete engine failure.

On the contrary, the guts of an electric car are simple, with two essential organs—a lithium ion battery and an electric motor. The battery can fail, but most typically last between eight to fifteen years before giving out.

“From a repair worker’s point of view (electric vehicles) aren’t the greatest. But from a personal point of view they are a great thing,” said Paul Guzyk, owner of Boulder Hybrids, a repair shop that specializes in plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles.

Guzyk, who has yet to see a failure of a pure electric battery, likened electric motors to similar machines that can be found in a refrigerator, many of which run for 15 to 20 years with no problems. He said the primary maintenance for electric vehicles involves checking tire pressure, fixing wiper blades or light bulbs.

He recommends car buyers evaluate their actual needs as drivers, and insists that electric vehicles can be a perfect supplemental choice, given their limited range

“People need to step back and think about how they use their vehicles,” he said. “Families with more than one car can figure out how to make it work.”


transportation_4A “Game Changer”

When an oil powered car chugs down the road: The tailpipe wheezes out organic compounds and nitrous oxide, resulting in the unpleasant smog that pervades car dense metropolises from Bangkok to Brooklyn. Not to mention the emissions from the fumes and vapors that arise during the refueling process.

When an electric car slinks down the road: silence. No tailpipes. No fumes, no gases, no oil drip, no smell.

But that does not necessarily equate to zero emissions. Ozzie Zehner, a reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looks at the long game, something he refers to as “the long tailpipe”.

“Shifting from gasoline or petrol cars to electric cars is like switching a smoking habit from cloves to menthols,” said Zehner in an interview earlier this month with CBC radio, a Canadian station.

In his book “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” Zehner rails against all that is car culture, including EVs, and calls on governments to instead focus their incentive programs and investment in more walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes.

The argument is that while on the surface EVs are zero emission—harmful compounds are not belched from a tailpipe—there are still environmental costs that stem mostly from the production of lithium ion batteries, and from the sources of the electricity that is used to charge an EV.

Part of what Zehner considers in analyzing emission products is the source of the electricity that powers an electric vehicle. Sources change depending on the region: hydropower in the southeast, coal in the Midwest, natural gas in Texas, wind and solar out west. These are not the strict generating sources of electricity in the respective regions, but they are representative of the overall electric grid.

However, the Department of Energy’s program manager of Hybrid Electric Systems, Dave Howell, maintains that EVs are a much lesser evil than their fossil fueled counterparts.

“We did a cradle to grave analysis, and we see that EVs stack up very well with other technologies,” he said. “The more EVs you have the better off you are in terms of energy security and environmental [impact].”

In Boulder County, a sustainable source of electricity comes from its many homes which soak up the sun and power the lives of those who live in them. Solar panels line neighborhoods from Erie to Superior. Yellow rays of sun ricochet off their silver cells, blinding the Front Range on especially sunny afternoons.

This too, is something the county is at least partially responsible for: Benefits Boulder County also offered discounts on installing solar panels, with an added bonus if purchased in conjunction with an EV.

Strife recognizes that community-wide efforts like her Benefits Boulder County program might just be a tiny piece of a gigantic whole. But, it’s an important piece, a “game changer.”

“We might not have the biggest impact comparatively,” Strife admitted. “But what we can do is be the guinea pigs for an awesome model.”

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