Can Virginia Cities Turbo-Charge Their Adoption Of Electric Vehicles?

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Faced with the dual threats of climate change and COVID-19, localities across Virginia are waking up to the danger posed by American society’s reliance upon combustion-fuelled cars and beginning to look to electric vehicles (EVs) as a solution. In fact, industry leaders and government officials alike believe change must begin with governments’ own fleets first.

A slow but steady start around the state

The Commonwealth currently ranks 23rd in its adoption of EVs. And while in 2018 EVs made up less than 2% than of all new auto sales in the state, Virginia residents have expressed a growing interest in purchasing EV vehicles. Many localities seem to be following their lead.

One such city is Roanoke. Since 2018 the “Magic City” has added 17 EVs to its fleet of municipal vehicles. By purchasing lightly used Nissan Leafs from local car dealerships Roanoke was able to simultaneously reduce its carbon footprint and its vehicle maintenance costs in one move.

According to Nell Boyle, Roanoke’s sustainability coordinator, “The switch is expected to save the city $150,000 in vehicle replacement costs and reduce energy and maintenance spending by 80 percent compared to the gas guzzling large sedans and sport utility vehicles the Nissans replaced.”

Although Roanoke’s 17 EVs make up a tiny slice of the city’s roughly 630 municipal vehicles, their pragmatic acquisition and cost-effective use could prove a model for other localities across the state and region looking to reduce carbon pollution while also helping their bottom line.

Virginia’s next strongest locality on EV adoption, Fairfax County, has nine vehicles according to one industry estimate. After that the numbers dwindle even further. Charlottesville, Chesapeake, Arlington, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Danville all had six or less EVs in their city fleets at last count.

No one seems certain just how many government-owned vehicles are on the roads in Virginia, but estimates from neighboring states indicate the number is surely in the tens of thousands. School buses alone account for 17,000 publicly owned vehicles in the Commonwealth, meaning the total benefits of broader EV adoption for government coffers, the environment, and public health could be huge.

A green way to save green

For Alleyn Harned, the Executive Director of Virginia Clean Cities, the choice for localities to switch to EVs is a no-brainer. “Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Virginia by a mile and is an important mitigation area for municipalities looking to reduce or eliminate their emissions,” he said in an interview.

Harned’s organization works with localities, private companies, nonprofits, and school districts across Virginia to help them cut carbon from their transportation portfolio by switching to less oil-intensive forms of mobility whether it’s liquid natural gas, hybrids, or electric. He’s witnessed many entities reach for EVs as a panacea without first having a more comprehensive conversation on how electrification can both boost their bottom line and reduce their carbon footprint.

“One of the major challenges is that people oversell and oversimplify fleet electrification,” he said. “This isn’t an easy slam dunk policy, but it is a huge opportunity that will require a lot of work. It’s a bigger initial cost, but over the lifetime of the vehicles electrification really pays off.”

For private EV owners in Virginia, the equivalent electricity to travel the same distance as with a gallon of gasoline comes out to around a dollar per gallon. Although gas prices have dropped on average 52 cents across the country since the start of the pandemic, EV’s still achieved comparatively impressive cost savings.

For localities, the dollars saved would be higher still. City and county governments in Virginia only pay between 4 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity. That means their charging costs for EVs come out to just 40 to 80 cents per gallon when compared with classic fossil fuels like gasoline or natural gas. EVs also help localities avoid busting their budgets when gas prices spike since electric prices are regulated by the state and relatively stable.

For a municipality like Danville which has invested heavily in building out its solar generation, EVs could both help the city to manage peaks in its renewable energy generation during particularly hot and sunny days as well as provide a free source of mobility to its employees, school kids, and transit riders.

So why not adopt?

The biggest barrier to cities looking to electrify their fleets is cost. Though EVs save money over time and more than recuperate the initial investment required to buy them and build out their charging infrastructure, scraping together enough funds to purchase EVs can prove prohibitive to perennially cash-strapped localities.

According to a report from the Edison Foundation, EVs aren’t expected to reach price parity — the point at which a battery costs the same as a standard transmission—with ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles until 2027. Until they do, many EV buyers rely upon federal rebates of $7,500 per vehicle to offset the initial cost of switching over. As that rebate is doled out in the form of a tax break to the owner, state and local governments are not eligible since they don’t pay taxes to the federal government.

The road to revving up

To overcome this hurdle to municipal EV adoption, nonprofits have gotten creative to find ways to pass on the rebate’s benefits to government buyers. One of the most prominent mechanisms through which states and localities alike are electrifying is the Climate Mayors EV Purchasing Collaborative.

Launched in 2018 just after President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, a group of 400 American mayors teamed up with the nonprofit Electrification Coalition (EC) as their technical partner to find ways to reduce EV adoption costs. By providing guidance to over 200 counties, port authorities, school districts, cities, and universities, EC hopes to move fleet electrification into the fast lane.

Through specially crafted leases, EC is able to pass on 60% of the federal rebate to localities that purchase EVs through their collaborative. The flexibility of this model makes it relatively easy to scale up, but so far EC’s work in Virginia has centered on just three cities: Alexandria, Charlottesville, and Newport News. Those three localities have committed to adding 24 EVs to their fleets by the end of 2020.

Sarah Reed, EC’s EV Purchasing Manager, believes the growing interest among localities on the outskirts of D.C. in particular stems from high rates of adoption in surrounding jurisdictions.

Maryland and DC boast the eighth and ninth-highest rates of EV adoption, respectively, of private vehicles in the country. Their governments aren’t far behind either. Among Maryland localities, College Park, Greenbelt, Montgomery County, Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Baltimore all boast higher tallies of EVs in their fleets than any locality in the Commonwealth.

A map of plug-in vehicle (PEV) registrations.  Image by US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

In order to ensure the benefits of fleet electrification extend far beyond the confines of the Beltway, EC is pivoting towards greater state level coordination. One goal over the coming years is to help build out a network of peer cities which can assist each other to rev up their electrification efforts.

Localities lead the way

One such city pioneering a path towards full fleet electrification is Alexandria. By the end of the year Bill Eger — the lead Energy Manager for Alexandria’s Office of Energy Management — expects to have seven EVs, five EV school buses, and six electric transit buses added to the city’s fleet of some 525 vehicles. By 2024 his office hopes to have replaced 25% of city vehicles with hybrid electrics, full battery electrics, and/or plug-in hybrid electrics.

Such bold commitments stem not from the whims of city leaders but rather from Alexandria’s residents themselves. “We began working on the shift to EVs based off a community vision that resulted from a two year long update of the city’s Environmental Action Plan 2040,” said Eger in an interview. “One of the community’s top priorities was beginning the transition of our transportation sector with a focus on the city demonstrating leadership on vehicle electrification.”

The hope is that by 2040 underlying market trends will have grown so strongly in favor of EVs that a strategy to electrify the rest of the fleet won’t be a strategic decision but rather an inevitable reality. “We’re trying to get a head start now and then leave a long lag time so the market can produce a full range of alternatives with the goal of replacing all our combustion engines with electric ones,” said Eger.

To accelerate the switch, Alexandria is leaning on a wide variety of policy levers at its disposal. For the past four years the city has required a set number of “EV ready” parking spaces at businesses and commercial properties over a certain size. Zoning and permitting changes could hasten EV adoption as well by helping to establish the build out of charging infrastructure as a sustainable business model.

The Office of Energy Management is currently drafting an EV infrastructure readiness strategy to evaluate the needs not just of the city’s fleet but of private households and businesses as well. “We’d love a grant to cover the total cost of new EV infrastructure, but as long as we’re seeing an incremental return on transitioning our fleet we’re going to keep moving forward on this,” said Eger. “Where there’s a partnership opportunity to figure out a more robust charging situation that doesn’t further inequity in our community, that’s something we want to pursue.”

Help from above

As localities lead the way on fleet electrification, more could be done at the state level to boost Virginia’s EV adoption. Competitive battery research grants, especially, could incentivize the development of heavier duty EVs to replace fire trucks, dump trucks, and other large municipal vehicles. Such grants could also bring new industries and research to Virginia.

By storing power during the day and charging overnight, EVs could one day become a key component of how Virginia manages its growing portfolio of renewables. The State Corporation Commission could set electricity rates that encourage EV ownership by establishing EVs as strategic grid resources. As the Commonwealth moves towards its goal of zero-carbon energy generation by 2045, it’s not hard to imagine EVs playing a critical role in stabilizing Virginia’s grid (and its utilities’ profit margins).

Eger for one would welcome such changes. “We need to start thinking about EVs as batteries on wheels. The premium on these vehicles is the cost of the battery itself,” he said. With over 2.5 million publicly owned vehicles across the country, the work left to be done on fleet electrification is immense. Considering most municipal vehicles have a 12-14 year lifespan, any efforts to move Virginia towards 100% electric vehicles by 2034 must begin today.

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