Throughout the streets and highways of California, the vroom noise of gas-powered cars has begun to give way to the subtle purr of electric vehicles. But how often you notice the change can depend on where you live.
For Mike Saint of Santa Cruz, helping people get behind the wheel of an EV for the first time has become a hobby since he retired in 2015 after a four-decade career in the airline industry. “I was a lone wolf for about two or three years, but you can’t see a lot of EV adoption with just one person,” he said. Recently, Saint has started collaborating with Ecology Action, a local environmental nonprofit, to campaign for EV adoption along the Central Coast, which spans from Santa Cruz to Ventura.
Saint believes advocacy and education are the most important factors in increasing adoption rates. He described the process as “holding hands with people and guiding them” to become EV owners.
Forty miles northeast of Santa Cruz, the story is different. Often hailed as the EV capital of the United States, Palo Alto has 7% EV adoption, compared with less than 2% in Central Coast communities. Nationally, it’s 0.5%. Palo Alto is also home to the corporate headquarters of Tesla, the best-selling EV brand in the U.S. “It’s like ground zero for electric cars,” said Jerry Pohorshky, president of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Auto Association.
Although Palo Alto’s early strides represent a significant achievement, its EV story is not easy to replicate.
“I think it’s that people [in Palo Alto] have a lot of money and like tech, but that’s not what’s going to be driving adoption in the future,” said Sherry Listgarten who writes a climate column for Palo Alto Online called “A New Shade of Green.” However, she commended the city’s EV advocacy, saying, “One thing Palo Alto has done really well is demystify EVs.”
Increased EV adoption is central to the fight against climate change. Transportation makes up the greatest portion of greenhouse gas emissions in both the U.S. and California, at 29% and 50% respectively, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. California has set an ambitious goal to have 5 million EVs on the road by 2030, up from 560,000 in 2019.
In September 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive order to ban the sale of all gas-powered vehicles in the state by 2035.
Many barriers remain in California’s way, including the cost of a new EV. According to Kelly Blue Book, the current average price is $53,701 compared with $40,857 for a gas-powered vehicle before factoring in incentives. “If you look at the whole life-cycle, then these cars are not very expensive, but a lot of times people don’t look at that, they just look at the upfront cost,” Listgarten said.
Based on research from the Center for Sustainable Energy, an EV owner can expect to save $9,000 in fuel costs and $4,000 on maintenance over a 200,000-mile EV lifetime.
Residents in both Palo Alto and the Central Coast can also receive rebates and incentives at the federal, state and local levels for both the purchase of an EV and EV charging equipment. However, keeping all of these incentives straight can be challenging and confusing. “What bothers me the most is the inconsistency of the EV incentives,” Saint said. “They’re funded, and then they’re not funded, and then they’re funded.”
Sabrina Delk, who leads the EV efforts for Ecology Action, agreed with Saint’s perspective on incentives. “We’ve had people who were PhDs tell us this is so confusing,” she said. “I don’t know why it has to be so confusing.”
At the national level, the federal government provides a tax credit of up to $7,500 for the purchase of a new EV, but these credits are capped at the first 200,000 models of each vehicle make sold. So Americans trying to buy an EV from Tesla or GM — the two most popular EV brands in the U.S. — are out of luck until January 2022, as both reached the cap in 2018. The federal government also provides tax credits for commercial and residential EV charging installations.
California has a Clean Fuel Reward Program rebate of up to $1,500, a California Clean Vehicle Rebate of $2,000 for EVs, and a Consumer Assistance Program grant of $1,000 to $1,500 for the retirement of an older gas-powered vehicle. The size of rebates depends on the buyer’s income level and the vehicle purchase price. It’s also limited by the amount of funding that the state allocates to each program every year.
At the regional level, residents of Palo Alto can receive a “Clean Cars for All” grant of $5,500 to $9,500 from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Residents of the Central Coast can receive a 3CE rebate of $2,000 to $4,000 from Central Coast Community Energy.
Generally, applicable incentives can be stacked on top of one another, often resulting in savings of more than $10,000 and making EVs cost competitive with gas-powered vehicles.
While incentives often do not apply to used EVs, the used EV market has grown substantially over the past few years as overall adoption has increased. “Nowadays, you can get a 2017 that has good range and is in good shape but also has low miles on it,” said Delk of Ecology Action. Expanding incentives for used EVs is seen as essential, as they provide a more affordable path to EV ownership for lower-income buyers.
Charging presents another hurdle for EV adoption. According to the city of Palo Alto’s website, 80% of EV charging takes place at homes.
Level 1 and Level 2 AC chargers are used in homes to charge EVs. Level 1 chargers come free with EV purchases and plug directly into the wall. They provide 4 to 6 miles of range for every hour of charging, which if charged overnight provides plenty of range for most commutes. Level 2 chargers can be purchased for home installation at around $1,000 and provide 22 to 26 miles for every hour of charging. “It’s actually less time to charge, and it’s more convenient because you don’t have to go anywhere, except the charger in your garage,” said Pohorsky of the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Electric Auto Association.
Charging at the office or for people who live in multi-families homes like apartments and condos can present more of a challenge if the buildings do not have charging stations.
EV charging can also present an issue for longer trips, as only a few higher-end EV models can offer a range of over 200 miles. Level 3 DC fast chargers, which are designed for commercial use, can help — they provide 75 miles of charge in 5 minutes.
“I feel like education is widely needed to break it down,” Delk said. “There’s alot of education that’s needed for the masses to really accelerate adoption.”
Once people get behind the wheel of an EV, they tend to really like it. “I don’t think people understand how great they are, they’re really great,” Listgarten emphasized. “People rarely go back from EVs to gas cars.”