Before electric vehicles are in widespread use, we need to solve the problems of how to get electricity to them and how to pay for the roads they run on. So far these problems haven’t mattered because there are so few e-vehicles. In Vermont we are very well-positioned to deal with both problems.
Electric vehicles will replace their gas-powered predecessors for the most old-fashioned of reasons: They are about to be cheaper to manufacture and buy and they can also be cheaper to maintain and operate. The problem of battery range, very real today, is a technical problem which will be solved. Moreover, the aging baby boomers, not to mention those of us who are even older, need assisted driving features which are almost impossible to implement with gasoline engines.
But how is electricity going to get to all those batteries? Do we need massive new sources of electricity (renewable or otherwise)? Do we have to rebuild the electric grid so that the energy we’re used to picking up at the gas station can be delivered to our home chargers?
And who is going to pay for the road and bridge building and maintenance currently funded from the gasoline tax? Electric cars still need roads to run on. Good road-marking is essential to self-driving cars. But, if you’re buying your fuel from your electric utility, you’re not paying any gas tax. What happens when gas tax collections are cut in half and then in half again?
The problem of getting people to buy electric cars will solve itself. We must start working on the problems which widespread use of e-vehicles will bring. These are issues which the Vermont state Legislature ought to be looking at this session with leadership from Gov. Phil Scott who is a “car guy” and wants to promote e-vehicle use. Here’s what we can and should do in Vermont right now.
Assure that electric utilities offer and promote time-of day pricing so that e-vehicles will be charged up off-peak. If a substantial amount of charging is off-peak, there will be little to need to build new electric transmission and distribution lines since the need for these lines is always determined by peak demand. Similarly, there is plenty of generation capacity available during off-peak periods so little new generation should be needed. Even where we must build new lines or generation, the cost of that building will be negligible per kilowatt so long as we smooth out the peaks and have all-night usage of any new capacity.
Off-peak pricing is not yet another subsidy to electric car owners; it allows anyone, even those without e-cars, to participate in the grid-wide savings that come from smoothing out the peaks of demand and filling in the valleys. It will be cheap and easy to offer off-peak pricing in Vermont because, during the last recession we got a huge stimulus grant which allowed us to install smart meters everywhere. The meters are there but we haven’t taken much advantage of them except to automate meter reading and aid in locating outages. The utilities currently have off-peak rates, but they don’t offer much incentive and are not promoted.
It is somewhat absurd that Vermont electric utilities are using ratepayer money to provide incentives for buying e-cars rather than saving money for all the ratepayers and making e-car fueling cheaper by encouraging the use of time-of-day rates.
Redirect the energy efficiency charge on electric use by those who have e-cars to the transportation fund to pay for road maintenance. Most residential users in Vermont pay an energy efficiency charge which amounts to more than an 8% surcharge on the usage portion of their electric bill. This money goes to an organization called Efficiency Vermont, except in Burlington where it goes to Burlington Electric. The revenue from the EEC is supposed to be used to reduce electricity usage in Vermont and thus save ratepayers money. Electric vehicles will increase electricity use so there is no sense in giving Efficiency Vermont a bonus because of increased usage. Putting the EEC payments from households (and some businesses) with electric vehicles into the transportation fund is a way for e-car owners to pay their share of road maintenance without having to pay higher electric bills.
Scott proposed in his State of the State address that EEC money be used to aid electrification of the vehicle fleet. Assuring that there will be well-maintained roads even as gas tax receipts dwindle is a great way to prepare for electrification to succeed.
Whether you believe that a transition to e-vehicles is essential for environmental reasons or not, that transition is going to come. Being prepared is very green.
Tom Evslin is an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official.