By Gabe Frayne
It appears, finally, the electric car’s moment has arrived. At the Tesla dealership on SW Macadam it is a busy Monday morning and a salesperson explains that there are no cars for sale on the lot because its quarterly shipment has already sold out.
At Ron Tonkin Chevrolet on SE 122nd St., a salesperson gives me a tour of the new Chevy Bolt and says, “Sales are increasing – Electric is taking over.”
This was definitely not the case when electric vehicles first came on the market three decades ago.
As documented in the 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car?, the oil industry and the auto industry pulled the plug on electric vehicles shortly after they were introduced.
This was done after a mandate from the California Air Resources Board which required auto producers to offer electric vehicles in order to sell any cars in that state. The reasons given were high cost, weak demand and extremely limited range.
Yet in 2020, despite the pandemic, recession and low gas prices, a growing number of consumers – as well as state and local governments – are reaching the conclusion that electric vehicles (EVs) make sense both financially and ecologically.
In the years since Big Oil and GM “killed” the electric car, public awareness and outrage over accelerating climate change, as well as technological improvements, have fundamentally changed the auto market.
It is no secret that the transportation sector is the number one global consumer of oil. In 2019, roughly two thirds of every barrel of oil produced in the US was refined into gasoline or diesel fuel for use in cars and trucks [see graphic].
Of course, EVs are not yet carbon-neutral either. As the Sierra Club notes on its website, “EVs are much cleaner than conventional vehicles today, even accounting for the emissions from electricity sources.”
How much cleaner largely depends on where the driver is charging the vehicle. The Pacific Northwest “has a very green grid” due to its reliance on hydro power as well as other renewables, says Whit Jamieson, program associate with the Portland-based electrification advocacy group, Forth.
“The carbon intensity of the Pacific Northwest grid is pretty good, and it’s getting better very quickly,” he adds.
Aside from environmental concerns, new technology has attenuated a few of the main obstacles to greater consumer acceptance of EVs.
The first of these is range. Compared to an average range of 80 to 100 miles per charge for the first electric cars, the Chevy Bolt now advertises a 259-mile range per charge, a 10 percent increase over last year’s model. The Tesla Model 3 can get up to 353 miles per charge.
However, charging an EV is a bit more complicated than filling a tank of gas. Charging from home may require installation of a 240-watt breaker and typically requires an overnight charge.
Plugging in at a commercial Level 3 power station, most commonly known as DC Fast Charging, is much quicker (about a half hour to an hour), but availability remains a problem for extended road trips.
A second concern is battery life. The Bolt’s battery is warrantied for 100,000 miles, and at Tesla, the salesperson assures customers that its lithium ion battery won’t expire “during your lifetime or six others.”
Finally, there is the issue of cost. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the Bolt is $38,345. The Tesla Model 3 with all-wheel drive is $46,990. While these sticker prices may be a tad higher than, say, a Hyundai Accent, in reality the price comes down significantly after factoring in incentives and rebates.
Oregon offers a $2,500 rebate to any customer who purchases an electric vehicle under $50,000 and an additional $2,500 based on income.
Perhaps the more important price consideration is the long-term cost: charging EVs is much less expensive than buying gas and they require far less maintenance.
One category of electric vehicles that is not changing the landscape as of yet is electric buses. As Jamieson explains, “Buses are pretty expensive, so it’s more of a financing issue than it is an overall cost of ownership issue.”
Unfortunately, as local governments and school districts struggle with the financial impact of the pandemic, converting the bus fleet to EVs is not a top priority. Still, various large cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, have committed to converting their bus fleets to all-electric within 20 years.
The electric vehicle movement has found a largely supportive audience in the Oregon State legislature and the governor’s office.
According to Rhett Lawrence, the policy manager at Forth, one of the group’s top two priorities this coming year is “supporting the Governor’s effort to pass an omnibus transportation electrification bill,” to “dramatically expand the income-qualified Charge Ahead rebate for EVs.”
If these and other pro-electrification policies succeed, 20 years from now a photo of a typical American city street in 2020 will look as quaint as Old Havana.