Rock Down to Electric Avenue

Electric vehicles took center lot at a recent Rhode Island Drive Electric Day in Cranston, R.I. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Electric vehicles took center lot at a recent Rhode Island Drive Electric Day in Cranston, R.I. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Electric car ownership in Rhode Island is on the rise, but it’s far from mainstream

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

CRANSTON, R.I. — All the usual suspects — the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius, Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S — were recently on display at the second Rhode Island Drive Electric Day. Surrounded by a sea of gas guzzlers in the Garden City Center parking lot, two dozen electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids drew the attention of Saturday afternoon shoppers, prospective buyers and car enthusiasts.

Electric vehicle (EV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) ownership has risen significantly in Rhode Island, according to Frank Stevenson, supervising air specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), who helped with public education at the event.

At the end of 2012, there were 92 EVs in the state, according to the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER). Today, there are more than 500 EVs on the road — about 80 all-electric and 420 or so plug-in hybrids, Stevenson said.

PHEVs such as the Volt and Prius can be charged and operate on all-electric power for part of their range, before switching to a hybrid gasoline engine. A growing range of consumer options has propelled more people into EVs, Stevenson said.

Parked beside their better-known counterparts, the BMW i3 REx, Volkswagen eGolf, and the Ford Fusion Electric and C-Max Energi vied for attention at the event. There are now more than 20 EV or PHEV models available in the United States.

Meanwhile, EV technology is getting better and cheaper. Compared to its predecessor, the second-generation 2016 Volt has a better electric range — 53 miles compared to 38 miles — and better fuel efficiency after its gasoline-powered back-up motor kicks in, 42 miles per gallon compared to 37. Despite the improved performance, the new model costs about $1,200 less.

The second-generation LEAF — expected to hit markets in 2017 — is similarly expected to be less expensive than its first-generation counterpart despite improved range.

Improvements in EV infrastructure also have made it easier for drivers to make the switch from gasoline to electricity, according to John Gilbrook, director of New England operations at ChargePoint, an EV infrastructure company with the largest network of chargers in the country.

In Rhode Island, the public can access more than 60 charging stations comprised of more than 160 charging ports. As more stations come on-line, consumer range anxiety — the fear of running out of battery power mid-ride — decreases, Gilbrook said. Charging stations can be located using smart-phone apps.

Stevenson, who owns a Volt, said he typically charges his car overnight at his home and at a charging station where he works in Providence. Between the two charging locations, he never uses the Volt’s gasoline engine for his 45-mile round-trip commute from Glocester.

Workplace chargers are ideal for EV owners, according to Stevenson, because, depending on the type of charger, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to fully charge a vehicle. Chargers at retail establishments such as grocery stores or shopping centers are also convenient, he said.

EVs currently contribute only a small sliver to Rhode Island’s reduction in overall greenhouse-gas emissions in the transportation sector. (Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition)

EVs currently contribute only a small sliver to Rhode Island’s reduction in overall greenhouse-gas emissions in the transportation sector. (Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition)

Electric obstacles
Despite rapid EV growth in Rhode Island between 2012 and the present, the state’s fleet of 500 vehicles doesn’t even register when considering total vehicles in Rhode Island. In 2011, there were more than 527,000 passenger vehicles on the road.

The up-front cost continues to deter prospective buyers, according to Stevenson. The 2016 Volt, even at its reduced price point relative to older models, still costs around $33,000. The “Premier” model comes in at $37,500. Even after the $7,500 federal tax credit, many buyers are simply priced out of the market.

The 2015 LEAF, a smaller EV with no gasoline-powered back-up motor, costs $29,000 before tax credits. The 2015 Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which has an electric-only range of just 11 miles, costs $30,000.

Some states offer additional tax incentives for EVs to bring the cost down further. Massachusetts currently offers a $2,500 credit, while Connecticut offers $1,500. Rhode Island doesn’t currently offer a state-level tax credit, though the state is actively researching ways to offer an incentive program, according to OER.

Long-term savings also help offset the cost of EVs. Fuel costs for EVs can be as low as 2 cents a mile, a quarter of the cost of gasoline-powered cars even considering the present dip in gas prices. EV owners can expect to save thousands of dollars in fuel costs over the life of their vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

For drivers of all-electric vehicles, such as the LEAF or Model S, maintenance cost are usually lower as well. EV electrical systems require little to no regular maintenance, their braking systems are longer lasting, and their motors have fewer moving parts and fluids to change, according to manufacturers.

The cost of charging infrastructure is another obstacle. In 2013, the administration of then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee awarded a $780,000 contract to ChargePoint to site and install 50 charging stations, amounting to more than $15,000 per station. The money came from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Charging time is another deterrent. Drivers of conventional cars are used to being able to fill up in a few minutes at the nearest gas station. Electric cars take significantly longer to charge. From a standard 120-volt AC outlet — commonly used for home charging — it can take more than 16 hours to charge a fully depleted battery with a range of 85 miles. A 240-volt charging station — the most common publicly available station — reduces that charging time to 4-8 hours. Even at a fast-charge station, charging takes 30 minutes.

Though range anxiety on the part of consumers still impacts EV sales, new models are always improving in the category. The 2016 LEAF has a range of 107 miles, up from 84 miles offered by the previous model. The second-generation Leaf is anticipated to have a range of between 150 and 200 miles per charge.

A more comprehensive network of charging stations also has helped to dampen range anxiety. There are currently more than 580 charging stations available to EV drivers in southern New England.

Mark Renburke, executive director of Drive Electric Cars New England, said he can drive about 50 all-electric miles on a fully charged battery in his Volt — 15 miles farther than the EPA estimate. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Mark Renburke, executive director of Drive Electric Cars New England, said he can drive about 50 all-electric miles on a fully charged battery in his Volt — 15 miles farther than the EPA estimate. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Policy help
For the foreseeable future, government will likely play an important role in encouraging the adoption of EVs.

In October 2013, Chafee announced Rhode Island’s participation in an eight-state effort to put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) on the road by 2025. The initiative aims to promote ZEV readiness, calls for states to lead by example with their own fleets, and encourages the adoption of monetary and non-monetary incentives, among other actions.

Also in 2013, the Chafee administration announced that it would transitioning the state fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles. New state vehicle purchases must be electric vehicles or hybrids wherever possible. State agencies use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to pay for the differential cost between an alternative-fuel vehicle and a comparably sized gasoline-powered car.

A draft of Energy 2035, the state’s soon-to-be-finalized energy plan, estimates the number of EVs that could be on the road in Rhode Island by 2035 given different scenarios and priorities. In its business-as-usual scenario, the report estimates that 7,000 EVs would be registered in Rhode Island by 2035. In the scenario that prioritizes fossil-fuel reduction, the report estimates more than 84,000 EVs would be on the road — 16 percent of all registered passenger vehicles.

Achieving the higher end of the range will mean investing in a comprehensive network of well-sited charging stations, according to the plan. This effort began under the Chafee administration’s program that brought 50 charging stations in 2013. It will continue under Gov. Gina Raimondo administration via two soon-to-be-launched programs, according to Ryan Cote of OER.

The first will allocate $600,000 of funding for the state, its municipalities, and public colleges and universities to build charging stations. The second will allocate $125,000 for private institutions and nonprofits to do the same. Cote estimated that this investment could result in upwards of 30 additional charging stations. The programs will be funded by money obtained through the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Stevenson, of DEM, said encouraging employers to install charging stations, and modifying building codes to require charging infrastructure in new or multifamily-units, will be important steps toward the wider adoption of EVs.

Energy 2035 also suggests offering consumers who buy EVs various tax credits, and specifically highlights a revenue-neutral Vehicle Efficiency Incentive Program, that would provide rebates to purchasers of fuel-efficient vehicles, funded by fees levied on purchasers of inefficient vehicles.

Converting to EVs is one of the most impactful ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector, said Wendy Lucht, coordinator of Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition and organizer of the recent Rhode Island Drive Electric Day event. Her organization focuses on reducing carbon pollution by promoting alternative fuels, fuel economy, idle reduction, policies to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and advanced-technology vehicles.  

“I think EVs are going to be like cell phones,” she said, referring to the technology’s exponential growth. “Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that we would be where we are today?”