Are Colorado Car Buyers Ready to Drive the Electric Vehicle Revolution?

Karlis Dambrans / Flickr
The batteries are getting better, costs are coming down, and a nationwide network of charging stations is gradually falling into place. But the global electric vehicle revolution that many experts predict is just around the corner won’t happen unless more and more consumers begin to see themselves in a new plug-in, battery-powered car. And the only way that will happen is through plenty of good old-fashioned salesmanship.

“Once you drive it once, that’s it,” says Nigel Zeid, an EV specialist with Boulder Nissan. “You just need to drive one of them and you’re hooked.”

Zeid pitched Denver residents on the benefits of EVs at a two-day event held at the Pepsi Center as part of the ninth annual National Drive Electric Week, organized by several environmental and automotive groups. The event was sponsored by Xcel Energy, which has launched programs to encourage EV adoption and will play a critical role in building the charging infrastructure necessary for an electrified transportation sector.

“They’re certainly picking up speed,” Zeid says of the utility, which outlined plans for more EV-related infrastructure in a filing with the Public Utilities Commission last month. “They realize they’re a key part of this.”

The environmental benefits of EVs are well known, but Zeid says he also talks to potential buyers about other factors, from their surprising performance and acceleration to the low maintenance costs for plug-in vehicles.

"The maintenance is nothing, really," he says. "It's a tire rotation in six months' time, a battery inspection in a year's time. That's it. You have no fan belt, no hoses, no filters, no oil, no nothing."

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment will host its own Drive Electric Week event at the City and County Building today, September 19. Mayor Michael Hancock and Governor Jared Polis are both expected to speak, and attendees can register to test-drive more than a dozen different EV models.

The transition to electric vehicles is a major component of Colorado's strategy for combating climate change. The transportation sector is the state's second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and energy officials have set a target of putting nearly one million EVs on the road by 2030, or about 15 percent of all light-duty vehicles in the state.

On September 18, the Colorado Energy Office announced that it had awarded grants to help install 93 new EV charging stations across the state, including at Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and the Colorado Springs Airport, and in such municipalities as Fraser, Cortez and Winter Park. The latest round of grants is part of a state program that has helped fund roughly 900 charging stations since 2013.

The list of grant awardees "shows the wide range of local communities working to establish EV readiness," Zach Owens, a program manager with the Colorado Energy Office, said in a statement. "These chargers will provide EV drivers more options for publicly accessible charging across Colorado."

John and Becky Milanski of Louisville have owned an EV since 2012, and came to the September 17 Xcel event to test-drive a new Nissan Leaf. They say the technology has advanced considerably since they bought their first all-electric model.

"When we first got the 2012 Leaf, range anxiety was a big deal," John Milanski says, referring to the fear of running out of battery charge. "A lot of people have talked about how that's kept them from getting electric cars. Now it's a non-issue. You have, essentially, a gas station at home, and if it's got 200 miles [of range], it's not a problem."

The Milanskis, like the approximately 25,000 other Coloradans already driving an EV, are early adopters. If the state wants to meet its goals, hundreds of thousands of drivers will soon have to make the switch from gas to electric power. And Zeid says that beyond any technological or economic factors, the key to making that happen is a lot of EV evangelism.

“I go to all these meetings, these sustainability groups, [like] the Colorado Energy Office EV coalition,” says Zeid. “But we’re the choir. What we want to do is go out and sing to other people so they say, ‘What a beautiful choir, I want to be part of that.’”