Leading the Charge
Our family just joined the one percent in Maine: not the wealthy elite, but the select few who own plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles (EVs). Now we’re wondering how to invite others along.
Since we installed solar panels two years ago, I assumed that our next vehicle would be electric. Solar-powered charges are estimated to cost just 71 cents per eGallon (the cost of fueling with electricity), a price not seen at gas pumps in roughly 40 years!
When powered by sun or wind, an electric car is considered a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV). That’s especially beneficial in Maine, where transportation spews out 53 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and numerous counties suffer from high-ozone days.
Indulging wishful thoughts about someday owning an EV, we test-drove a Nissan Leaf, the most affordable all-electric car, and we liked it. But it was beyond our budget, and my 14-year-old car was going strong. When that gave out in coming years, I figured, we’d look for a used EV.
Then in late August, a sales consultant at Lee Nissan called to tell us that Efficiency Maine’s EV Accelerator Program, funded through the Volkswagen Settlement Fund, would soon launch with a $2,000 rebate on all-electric cars. Better still, Nissan was offering a stackable $5,000 Leaf rebate to all Central Maine Power customers. That $7,000 would come directly off the purchase price with no mail-in redemption hassles.
Combine those offers with the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles, and the price of the base-model Leaf (before taxes and fees) fell below $17,000 – very nearly a half-off deal.
On the first day of the state’s rebate program, we arrived when the dealership opened – ready to drive off in our new EV. I expected to find a line out the door that morning, knowing how bargains draw thrifty Mainers.
But there are more roadblocks to widespread EV adoption than I had realized.
Word hadn’t gotten out about the Nissan rebate, and the dealership was struggling to get sufficient Leafs in stock (it has since gotten more, but most are shipped to California). Not all Nissan dealers in Maine even stock the Leaf.
To get certified to sell Leafs, dealerships face “a pretty stout investment” of $40,000 to $60,000 – for staff training and EV service equipment and chargers, explains Jason Moore, EV operations manager for Nissan Northeast. Of the 12 Nissan dealers in Maine, he adds, eight are Leaf-certified and two more are working toward it.
State officials have not yet calculated how quickly Maine must electrify its transportation sector to meet renewable power goals, but initial estimates in Massachusetts are daunting: by 2030, two out of every three vehicles sold in that state will need to be electric.
We’re just now at “the very first chapter of Maine’s efforts to promote clean transportation modes,” acknowledges Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. The state’s new rebate program, he adds, is only “going to be a drop in the bucket.”
Bigger drops could come through a regional Transportation and Climate Initiative that Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states may launch in 2021, if they reach an agreement by the end of this year. Modeled after the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has substantially cut carbon pollution from the power sector, the TCI would apply a “cap and invest” approach to prime suppliers of refined oil, using funds generated to increase transportation efficiency.
TCI could provide Maine and other states a “sustainable funding source” to help make EVs more affordable until increased manufacturing can lower per-car costs, explains Daniel Gatti, senior transportation analyst at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. Rebates and tax credits can stimulate sales, he adds, easing the burden on producers since “new technologies are never profitable.”
Another substantial challenge, Gatti says, is helping inform consumers — few of whom realize that “the EV is a superior vehicle in so many ways” beyond its minimal pollution, offering a silent and smooth ride and “instant torque.” Maine residents can test-drive EVs at National Drive Electric Week events being held through September 22, but comparing models and costs can be hard.
In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a private nonprofit called Green Energy Consumers Alliance began addressing this challenge in 2016, creating a Drive Green program that informs people of EV options and establishes discounts with area dealerships. Anna Vanderspek, the Alliance’s electric vehicles program director, acknowledges that its clearinghouse “takes a lot of investment,” but says it’s a replicable platform that is already being shared in other regions.
Communities in western states have used a similar “group buy” program, working with one or more dealers to steeply discount the price of certain EV models for a set period of time.
Vanderspek sees an increasing role for EV promotion among community groups and regional organizations that “already talk about sustainability but may never have talked about transportation before.” Electric utilities are another obvious collaborator in marketing EVs since they stand to benefit from vehicle electrification.
Between 2013 and 2018, CMP gave $250,000 in small grants to Maine nonprofits and municipalities to help them install chargers and purchase EVs, says its spokesperson Catharine Hartnett. This June, Nissan began offering employees and customers of CMP’s U.S.-based parent company, Avangrid, a $5,000 rebate on Nissan Leaf purchases through September (an offer since extended through the calendar year) in what Hartnett describes as a first-time “marketing arrangement” with a manufacturer.
CMP included notice of that rebate information in its September bill inserts, but directed customers to a web page with outdated information (no mention of the state rebate, the option to stack Nissan’s offer with that rebate or the extended time period of the Leaf offer.). I notified CMP of this oversight on September 11. As of September 18, no site corrections had been made.
For EV sales to take off in Maine, as they must to minimize climate damage, increase energy independence and improve air quality, prospective customers need timely and accurate information. It shouldn’t take a call from a dealership to learn about appealing deals on electric cars. From agencies and utilities to businesses and nonprofits, we need more drivers of change.
National Drive Electric Week Events (EV test-drive events are scheduled for September 21 in Portland and September 22 in Portsmouth)
“How Clean is Your Electric Vehicle” calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists
Editor’s Note: Marina Schauffler formerly did contractual writing for Efficiency Maine but had no involvement with its EV initiatives.
© Marina Schauffler, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.