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March 11, 2013

Why Is Massachusetts So Behind in EV adoption?

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More than 80,000 American drivers have purchased plug-in electric vehicles in the past couple of years, but only 900 of them are in my home state of Massachusetts. Why? One reason is the lack of incentives and coordinated planning in the state compared with others -- like California, Colorado, and North Carolina.

This week's Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Roundtable event, organized by the MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts Clean Cities Coalition, and the Conservation Law Foundation, set out to change that. It brought together leaders from utilities, auto companies, environmental advocacy groups, and the departments of Energy Resources, Transportation, and Public Utilities. There were even three state agency commissioners and a cabinet secretary in attendance. I was encouraged.

The day began with a reminder of Massachusetts' aggressive climate policies, which have set a goal to reduce carbon emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The consensus was that we won't get there without a significant shift from gasoline to electric driving -- in addition to a whole range of other strategies, including better public transit.

Steve Russell, the coordinator of Massachusetts Clean Cities Coalition, said that some progress had been made in the state through the training of electricians to install EV-charging units, safety training for emergency responders, a specialized MA EV license plate, and the installation of 160 public charging units throughout the state. Rachel Szakmary, from the City of Boston, described some of the city's EV-friendly policies, such as one that requires new parking garages to install EV-charging units.

Some of the other speakers pointed to what other states have done (and Massachusetts has not yet done) to incentivize EVs. These include providing HOV lane access to EV drivers; state tax credits (in addition to the federal ones) that make it less expensive to purchase EVs; waivers on sales tax and emissions inspections; and policies that make it easier to obtain permits to install EV-charging stations and to sell electricity for EV charging.

Nick Nigro, from the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions, shared a tool that could benefit Massachusetts officials. It's an interactive resource for state agencies that evaluates tangible EV-related opportunities, including grants, public education, and strategic installation of EV-charging stations.

Mike Payette, from Staples, talked about the office supply company's 53 Smith Electric Vehicle trucks in operation in Ohio, Oregon, California, Texas, and Missouri, which he said have traveled 670,000 miles and have saved 750 tons of CO2 from being burned in their first couple of years on the road. If Massachusetts puts more EV-friendly policies in place for consumers and businesses, perhaps Staples' next EV delivery trucks will be seen on the streets of Boston and Cambridge.

Emily Norton, from Environment Northeast, described an EV driver in a Boston suburb who had recently received one ticket for riding alone in the HOV lane, another for driving without an inspection sticker, and another for charging his EV in an illegal spot. In many other states, key programs ensure that an EV driver would have been allowed to do all of these things. Her point was that if we had incentives and programs in place in Massachusetts that encourage a switch to EVs, then drivers would feel rewarded and not hindered for cleaner driving.

At the end of the event, participants discussed the idea of an EV-readiness council to be appointed by the governor or legislature. Other states, such as Illinois, Maryland, and Connecticut, have pursued this model. I think it's a terrific idea, as long as there is high-level involvement from the state, auto companies, utilities, and environmental groups as well as a concrete and fast-moving action plan that comes out of the process. Massachusetts may not catch up to California anytime soon when it comes to EV adoption but, as Jenny Rushlow, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said, "Massachusetts is behind now, but can become a regional leader on EVs."

(Image of two cars charging in front of Boston City Hall by Gina Coplon-Newfield.)

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Green Fleets & Electric Vehicles Initiative. 

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