The vision of 1 million electric vehicles on Colorado’s roads and highways might sound like a far-off dream: Imagine charging stations being as common as gas stations are now, and vehicle owners refueling via wind and solar power flowing over the electric grid to their homes.
It’s still a dream, but it’s a dream that’s moving closer to reality.
The low-carbon, clean-energy future with electric-powered vehicles envisioned in the Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan might not be that far down the road, renewable-energy advocates, state and local officials and business owners say.
At the end of August, there were a total of 15,866 electric vehicles on the road in Colorado, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. While that’s still a tiny fraction of the overall number, it is a 50 percent increase from the same time in 2017. Colorado’s share of the national market for electric vehicles is 3.5 percent, making it No. 12.
Colorado ranks seventh in the nation in the number of electric-vehicle charging stations — 710 — according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Of those, 650 are open to the public.
And the state is using money from a national settlement with Volkswagen to build fast-charging stations at 33 sites across Colorado to give electric-vehicle drivers the confidence they can travel anywhere in the state.
Colorado received $68.7 million from the deal between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the auto company modified computer software to cheat on federal emissions tests. In addition to adding charging stations, the state proposes using the money to convert medium- and heavy-duty trucks, school, shuttle and transit buses, railroad freight switchers and airport ground support equipment to alternative fuels or replace them with electric vehicles.
Along with a spending plan, the state has a road map for electrification of its transportation sector. The state electric vehicle plan looks at “electrifying” key travel corridors and touts the ensuing economic, health and environmental benefits.
In 2017, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on promoting clean energy that directed the air quality council, state energy office, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation to work together on developing the statewide electric vehicle plan and taking feedback from the public. The health department is the lead agency on overseeing how the Volkswagen funds are distributed.
How near is the future?
Is the dream of 1 million electric vehicle replacing gas-burners too big? State Sen. Kevin Priola doesn’t think so. The Adams County Republican sees the transition to electric vehicles as the next chapter in the history of monumental, and inevitable, societal changes.
“Once wood and coal were used for heating houses and transportation. Then people realized natural gas and petroleum were cleaner and more efficient,” Priola said. “Once people realize that electricity produced and stored from solar panels and wind farms is much more efficient, cleaner and better for transportation, it will be adopted.”
For Priola, the future is now. He owns a Tesla sedan and has solar panels on his house. His electric utility, United Power, gives customers a break for using electricity during slow times so he charges the car overnight. He figures he ends up paying 2 cents a mile to run his car.
To encourage more Coloradans to switch to electric cars, Priola knows more charging stations for all kinds of vehicles are needed. He plans to again sponsor a bill that would change a law that prevents investor-owned electric utilities like Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy from owning or operating charging stations. Critics say the law, enacted in 2012, had unintended consequences and is now as a drag on efforts to increase the number of charging stations.
“We do think that it is important to change the law,” said Will Toor, director of transportation programs at the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. “At this point all over the country, we’re seeing utilities stepping up to invest in infrastructure.”
Xcel Energy said it would need to see more detail on any proposed legislation before commenting, but added that electric vehicles provide an opportunity to make the most of the utility’s investments in producing more power from renewable energy sources and cutting its carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
In February, Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric cooperative based in Glenwood Springs, will start working with homeowners and businesses that want to install chargers by working with local contractors and spreading the cost, about $1,000, over three years of electric bills. Holy Cross, whose goal is to use at least 70 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, will also cover the installation costs if communities add charging stations on routes the utility has identified as important to drivers.
“The future of (electric-vehicle) travel in Colorado is bright thanks to this new partnership with ChargePoint,” Hickenlooper said in November, announcing the award of a $10.3 million grant to build 33 high-speed charging stations along the state’s major transportation corridors.
A high-speed charger takes roughly a half hour to recharge a vehicle, depending on the car and size of the battery.
The Colorado Energy Office awarded the grant to ChargePoint, which has built charging networks in all 50 states, Canada and Europe. The funds are from the Volkswagen settlement.
A grant program requiring a 20 percent match from the applicant began as a pilot program in 2013 to build a network of charging stations, said Zach Owens, program manager for transportation fuels and technology in the state energy office. So far, 685 grants have been awarded.
“It’s the governor’s goal that anybody in an electric car can drive anywhere they want in the state,” Owens said.
Existing charging stations are scattered across Colorado, although there are more along the Front Range and are less dense on the Eastern Plains, Owens added.
ChargePoint will build the stations throughout 2019 and expects to complete the project in 2020, said Anne Smart, the company’s vice president of policy.
“We’ll be building out fast-charging stations across six corridors that Colorado has identified as needing more charging,” Smart said.
The corridors include U.S. 285, south from Interstate 70 to Alamosa; U.S. 50/550, south from I-70 to Durango; and U.S. 50, from Canon City to Lamar. The 33 sites will provide an additional 98 fast chargers.
Another inducement by the state to get more electric vehicles on the roads is a $5,000 tax credit for electric-car buyers and a $2,500 tax credit for those leasing. That’s on top of a federal tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500, based on the size of the car. Buyers pay $50 annual registration fee to support charging stations and other infrastructure.
Clearing the air
Electric-vehicle advocates say the benefits are many, including lower fuel and maintenance costs. The Union of Concerned Scientists says savings can run from $440 to more than $1,070 a year, depending on the electricity provider, the rate plan and the cost of gasoline. Edmunds, which provides reviews and other information about vehicles, advises people to factor in local electricity rates and the cost of a home charging station, which can cost more than $1,000 for a slower charger.
Besides economics, electric-vehicle boosters point to the environmental advantages. While there’s a lot of focus on energy production when exploring ways to cut climate-changing emissions and other pollution, transportation’s impacts are huge. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in 2017 that carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector had exceeded those from the electric power sector for the first time since the late 1970s.
In Colorado, the electric power sector accounts for about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions, followed closely by transportation, said Michael Silverstein, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, the lead air quality planning organization for a seven-county area that includes metro Denver.
A 2017 study by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project for Denver said that driving a battery electric vehicle reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent, volatile organic compounds by 99 percent and nitrogen oxide by 63 compared to an average gas-fueled vehicle.
If a million of Colorado’s vehicles are electric by 2030, greenhouse gases could be cut by 3 million tons and pollutants that cause smog by 800 tons, according to projections in the state electric vehicle plan. A less ambitious scenario projects about 300,000 electric vehicles cruising Colorado roads in a little over a decade.
An analysis by M.J. Bradley and associates said billions of dollars could be saved under both projections as Colorado ratepayers benefit from the spreading of utilities’ fixed costs across more customers and the lower operating costs of electric cars.
In November, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission unanimously adopted a low-emission standard for cars and light-duty vehicles, based on California’s rule. The rule requires automakers to boost fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon, a vehicle’s idealized number. The on-the-road number works out to be roughly 39 mpg.
Colorado is the 13th state to adopt California’s standard, which is under fire from the Trump administration. The administration has proposed rolling back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards and has threatened to challenge California’s authority under the federal Clean Air Act to set its own standard.
However, Colorado still plans to consider a zero-emission standard, which would mandate that a certain percentage of manufacturers’ vehicles sold in Colorado be electric. The requirement would likely be between 6 percent and 10 percent and apply initially to the 2023 model year.
Weakening the national fuel efficiency standards and undermining state initiatives could put a damper on manufacturers’ incentives to increase the number and variety of electric vehicles, said Carol Lee Rawn, senior director of transportation at Ceres, a nonprofit working with companies and investors on solutions to social and environmental issues.
“It’s absolutely very heartening to see a lot of states taking a leadership role,” Rawn added.
Ceres and the regional chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs organized a recent roadshow, complete with a bus converted from diesel to electric by the company Lightning Systems, to highlight businesses and local governments in Larimer County that are adding electric vehicles to their fleets and providing employees places to charge their cars.