FutureStructure

Electric Vehicle Ownership on the Rise in Massachusetts

Experts cite tax and other incentives, improving vehicle range and increased charging locations are fueling the growth of interest in electric vehicle ownership.

by Brian Benson, MetroWest Daily News / September 13, 2017
In 2015, the city of New Bedford, Mass., installed this electric vehicle charging station with $25,000 in Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Incentive Program assistance. Flickr/Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

(TNS) -- May Arthur looked at hybrid cars for many years, but she wasn't satisfied.

The Natick resident wanted an all-electric car – and she found it in the Tesla Model S about three years ago.

"It's been really more of a desire to change lifestyles and be less dependent on oil," said Arthur, whose home also has solar panels. "The car happens to be one of those components."

Arthur said she doesn't have to worry about oil changes or breathing in fumes from the car. And, it's fun to drive.

Arthur, an organizer of an upcoming electric vehicle event in Natick, is not alone in trading the gas pump for the electric cord. Data from the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection shows the number of electric vehicles in the state has grown from 782 as of July 31, 2013, to 3,770 as of March 31, 2017. The number of plug-in hybrids, which can also utilize gasoline, has increased from 1,034 to 5,701 during that time frame.

The Natick event, to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 16 on the Town Common, is part of National Drive Electric Week. The Bellingham Public Library hosted a similar event this weekend and the Wayland Town Building will host one from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 10.

The events are designed to showcase all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles and introduce people to the rapidly changing technology, organizers said.

"We're hoping we simply bring in curious residents and people driving by who want to know more about electric cars as well as plug-in hybrid cars," said Wynn Calder, an organizer of the Wayland event and driver of the Volkswagen e-Golf electric car.

WHY ARE ELECTRIC VEHICLES BECOMING MORE POPULAR?

Experts and electric vehicle advocates say tax and other incentives, improving vehicle range and increased charging locations are fueling the growth, though electric vehicles still comprise a small portion of the market.

The cost of batteries and thus electric vehicles is declining and people want to look beyond traditional fossil fuels, said Alison Felix of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which is involved in National Drive Electric Week and other initiatives.

"Advancing electric vehicles helps address climate change issues and also health issues such as asthma," said Felix, MAPC's senor transportation planner and emerging technologies specialist.

About 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, said Judith Judson, commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources.

"This is an area where we are now taking real steps forward to reduce emissions," Judson said.

Electric vehicles are responsible for less greenhouse gases than conventional gasoline-fueled vehicles even when charged using electricity generated by fossil fuels.

Electric cars use braking energy to help power the vehicle. They also have a more efficient drive train. And, the electric grid is getting cleaner with more use of solar and some other power sources, Judson said.

State officials have increased investment in a rebate program for zero-emission vehicles and are promoting electric vehicle technology through events where people can see and test-drive the cars, she said.

People have thought of electric vehicles as being expensive or small cars. But, they come now in a variety of sizes and at different prices, she said.

And, with electric vehicles becoming more common, people see their neighbors and co-workers driving them, said Guy Bedau, senior Nissan Leaf specialist and fleet manager at Milford Nissan.

Growth in charging infrastructure allows people to take road trips and drivers can find stations using their phone or computer, Bedau said.

He said customers are looking at the Leaf for financial and environmental reasons.

All-electric vehicles are easier to maintain. There are no oil changes, for example, said Jesse Rudavsky, vice president of the New England Electric Auto Association.

TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES

"It's changing at such a rapid pace that it's almost hard to keep up," said Bob Bolivar, who works in the Toyota T-TEN program at MassBay Community College, which has campuses in Wellesley, Framingham and Ashland. "The technology is incredible. The ability to store energy in smaller and safer batteries is incredible."

The technology changes so quickly that it would be logistically challenging for manufacturers to keep all the schools up to date, Bolivar said.

MassBay focuses on teaching its students to be aware of components of electric and hybrid vehicles and work safely on the vehicles. People who service hybrid vehicles, for example, also need factory training, he said.

The Leaf only had a range of about 85 miles five years ago. The 2018 model will have a range of about 150 miles, Bedau said.

Tesla's new Model 3 has around 220 miles of range with a standard battery, according to the company.

WHAT IS HOLDING BACK MORE WIDESPREAD ADOPTION?

Consumers tend to purchase cars on a five-year cycle, Judson said of one reason.

And, drivers are used to being able to easily find a gas station, while it takes a little more work to find a charging station, Bedau said.

Lack of infrastructure and misconceptions about the electric vehicles are also holding back sales, Rudavsky said.

The traditional dealership model incentivizes sales, so employees want to learn about the most popular cars. There's less incentive to learn about an electric car, Bedau said.

Rudavsky said dealers might not push electric vehicles because they require less maintenance. But Bedau said they are not widespread enough for that to be a factor.

Nevertheless, Rudavsky and Bedau foresee continued growth in electric vehicles.

"It isn't going away this time," Rudavsky said. "There are too many advantages."

MUNICIPALITIES JUMP ON BOARD

Municipal electric vehicle use is also growing as communities look to take advantage of state incentives and be leaders in adopting the technology.

Natick's Health Department, Assessor's Office and Council on Aging use electric Ford Focuses. The town installed charging stations at parking lots by Pond Street and South Avenue and plans to open a station at the Community-Senior Center, according to Sustainability Coordinator Jillian Wilson-Martin.

"Our charging stations are really something we find is an important way to meet the growing use of electric vehicles in our community," she said.

Officials continue to explore whether alternatives to traditional vehicles make sense for other areas of the municipal fleet, she said.

Mendon has acquired one electric vehicle for municipal use and provides public charging. The Nissan Leaf reduces employees' reliance on personal vehicles and the town's need to reimburse them, among other benefits.

Officials recognize electric vehicles are becoming more popular and want to be a leader in the community, said Bill McHenry, the Green Communities program manager for the town.

"It's interesting to see people get enthusiastic about it as they see it in real life," he said of the Leaf. "They try it and they like it."

CONSUMERS' VIEWS

Marlborough City Councilor David Doucette got a traditional hybrid that cannot be plugged in about a decade ago for environmental reasons. He was impressed with the low operating costs.

Last winter, he got a plug-in Toyota Prius. He can travel around the city by charging the car and relies on the gasoline-powered engine for longer trips, he said.

The city, he said, is looking to purchase electric cars for its fleet and exploring installing charging stations downtown.

"With the availability of electric cars and the price coming down, they're very cost-effective against gasoline-powered cars," he said.

Franklin's David Berger says he will never buy gasoline again. He has electric lawnmowers and three electric cars – two pickup trucks that were converted to electric and a Nissan Leaf.

While he understands the environmental benefits, Berger said he was motivated by not having to pay for gas.

"We didn't leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones," he said. Electric vehicles are "better in every possible way."

©2017 MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.