Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions

By: - January 14, 2021 1:17 pm
electric vehicle charging station

An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation. 

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions 48 percent come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent. 

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids. 

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use. 

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles. 

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed. 

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025. 

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government. 

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.” 

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot. 

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said. 

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote. 

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.” 

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles. 

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025. 

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner the technology remains more expensive than traditional models. 

A bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold. 

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.” 

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas. 

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall. 

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko. 

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said. 

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost. 

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.  

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.” 

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation. 

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups. 

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the reference to the Generation 180 survey. The wrong survey was cited.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.