Colorado Wants You to Save the Planet by Buying an Electric Car

Colorado Wants You to Save the Planet by Buying an Electric Car

Stopping climate change, warned the world’s top climate scientists last year, will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” One of those aspects is transportation, and the necessary change, while far-reaching and unprecedented, is also pretty straightforward: Everything has to be electrified.

The transportation sector is the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, releasing more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the tailpipes of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles every year. In the long run, the only way to achieve the drastic emissions cuts that scientists say are necessary is to replace gas-guzzling cars, trucks and buses — and eventually, even trains, ships and aircraft — with battery-powered, zero-emission electric vehicles.

That presents a massive technological and cultural challenge, but the world has little other choice — and here in Colorado, lawmakers and state officials are beginning to put in place a variety of policies to help accelerate the transition to EVs.

"We want to ensure every Coloradan has access to electric vehicles," Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, said at a press event touting EV policy on Tuesday, May 7. "We want to ensure those vehicles are cleaning up our air and helping save consumers money in the long run."

Lawmakers passed four bills aimed at encouraging electric vehicle adoption during Colorado’s 2019 legislative session, which ended last week. Most were passed by the legislature’s Democratic majority on largely party-line votes, though Senator Kevin Priola, a Republican from Aurora and an EV advocate, co-sponsored several of the bills.

One of the major obstacles to the widespread adoption of EVs is a lack of charging stations, whether at apartment buildings, workplaces, businesses, or along interstates for drivers on long-distance trips. So-called range anxiety is cited by consumers as one of the leading barriers to purchasing an electric vehicle. Colorado lawmakers aim to improve the state's EV charging infrastructure with Senate Bill 77, which incentivizes electric utilities to take the lead in building it.

"Since utilities manage the electrical grid, they are the key to building clean and reliable charging infrastructure so the general public can benefit most from transportation electrification," says Jenny Gaeng, a field organizer with Conservation Colorado. "Coloradans must take steps to protect our air and climate — a major part of that is electrifying cars and buses."

House Bill 1159, meanwhile, extends a state electric vehicle tax credit for another four years beyond its initial expiration date of 2022, allowing Coloradans to recoup between $2,000 and $10,000 of the cost of an EV purchase, depending on the year and vehicle type. In part, that’s meant to offset the loss of Obama-era federal tax credits that will be phased out over the next several years — and to help achieve cost parity between gas-powered cars and EVs, which, while still relatively costly, are becoming steadily cheaper.

Those and two other EV bills are expected to be signed into law by Governor Jared Polis in the coming days. (A fifth, which would have allowed EV manufacturers to sell directly to the public, was defeated under pressure from auto dealer groups.) But another significant shift in state EV policy is set to be made not by legislators, but by air-quality officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Today, May 10, regulators with the CDPHE’s Air Quality Control Commission are set to formally propose a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, a rule designed to increase the number of EVs available to Colorado consumers. The ZEV standard, first adopted by California in 1990 and gradually expanded over the years, requires automakers to sell a certain number of EVs.

If adopted, advocates say, the rule will lead car manufacturers to offer a wider variety of EVs for sale in Colorado — and, crucially, to invest in marketing efforts that increase awareness and demand for EVs among car buyers. Officials at the Colorado Energy Office have set a goal of putting nearly a million EVs on the road by 2030, or 15 percent of all light-duty passenger vehicles statewide.

The AQCC's rule-making process, which will unfold over the next several months, comes after Polis in January directed the commission to propose the rule in his first executive order as governor. Advocates are confident that with Polis in charge, the commission will adopt the rule, making Colorado the tenth state to follow California's lead in implementing the ZEV standard. But that doesn't mean there won't be opposition.

"One of the challenges is that not all of the automakers have embraced the idea that our future is electric," says Travis Madsen, transportation program director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

At the final stakeholder meeting held by CDPHE in advance of the rule-making, representatives from car manufacturers like Toyota and Mercedes-Benz peppered the commission with skeptical questions and comments about the forthcoming rule. Doug Decker, a program manager for the department's Air Pollution Control Division, sought to assuage their concerns by suggesting that the ZEV rule is "evolutionary, not revolutionary."

But Madsen says that in the long run, the economic benefits of the transition to EVs — cleaner air, healthier cities, consumer savings on fuel and maintenance costs, and a livable climate — are too great to ignore. A turning point, he says, is just around the corner.

"This is worth billions and billions and billions of dollars for Colorado," says Madsen. "There's just a little hill that we have to get over first. Once the awareness is there and we've unlocked a bigger market, it's just going to start rolling downhill, and everything's going to go electric."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff