Electric vehicles, the greenest and trendiest way of getting around, are also a charged political issue on the highways of Colorado.
Policymakers, led by Gov. Jared Polis and the Democrats who control the General Assembly, aren't easing off the accelerator anytime soon.
Immediately after taking office in 2019, Polis signed an executive order calling for 940,000 electric vehicles on the road in Colorado by 2030, roughly 43% of the passenger vehicles for sale.
That's a big jump: EVs are about 5% of the state's vehicle market.
It also won't be cheap. Try on more than $1.2 billion in the next decade shared by EV owners, businesses and the government.
A newly released analysis ordered up by the Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan assessed EV infrastructure across the state to meet the governor's 2030 goal. The price tag: at least $860 million shared for normal cars and trucks and another $364 million.
"We’ve made a lot of meaningful progress, but we only move forward from here at the scale required with continued policy support for charging infrastructure investment,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office and perhaps the state's loudest EV cheerleader.
Sales are moving in the right direction, though. The state Energy Office reports there were 11,238 EVs registered in the state in August 2017. The latest numbers show 35,146.
Toor said a seismic shift in auto manufacturing is underway to accommodate the surge.
"Change is coming to the auto industry," he said. "If you go back just a few years ago, you see an industry — other than Tesla — not committed to electrification. Major manufacturers have changed dramatically over the last several years."
General Motors, one of the world’s largest automakers, announced this year it will switch to all electric vehicles by 2035. Colorado auto sellers have agreed to make an ever-increasing percent of their sales in EVs.
Zero-emission vehicles are a pillar of Polis-driven climate plan, including a combination of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% over 2005 levels by 2025, a 50% reduction by 2030 and 90% less by by 2050.
Transportation is the country's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, though passenger cars and trucks are a subset of of transportation, its greenhouse gas emissions are a focus of regulators.
Two years ago, legislative analysts estimated GHG emissions from cars and trucks in Colorado results in an annual impact of $1.5 billion in public health costs, agricultural losses, flood risk and energy system costs.
In January, Polis presented his Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap that requires car companies to sell more zero-emission vehicles each year. The state sweetened the pot with an incentive to get more EVs on the road. Besides tax breaks, the green vehicles pay a $50 fee to use Colorado roads, instead of 22 cents on each gallon of gas, the main source for highway funding.
"This is what our renewable energy future looks like, getting creative, saving people money, providing more choices, creating jobs and staying focused on our goals of reducing emissions and improving air quality," Polis said about getting around and going green.
In the next month, the General Assembly is expected to adopt a transportation plan that invests millions of federal dollars into electrification of transportation.
Lawmakers will consider a bill laden with fees, fares and other income to pay for charging stations, electric government fleets, transit and incentives to get cars off the road.
There's a skirmish for those dollars at the Capitol, though, divvying up the shares for solutions ranging from faster bus service to Front Range commuter rail.
When President Joe Biden presented a $2 trillion infrastructure bill last month, it included a network of 500,000 charging stations across the U.S. by 2030, up from about 90,000 now built largely by the private sector.
The $174 billion plan over 10 years to boost EVs also includes money to retrofit car factories and foster domestic supplies of materials, plus continue to extend generous tax incentives to EV buyers.
The competition for transportation dollars is expected to be intense, more than usual for a fever-pitch issue at the state Capitol.
Truckers and commuters want immediate relief to add lanes to Interstate 25 north and south of Denver, and to Interstate 70 into the mountains, priorities in the administration's 10-year highway plan.
Others want policymakers to steer more of the money into mass transit, bike trails and any measure to get cars off the road or reduce the miles they travel.
The push to increase the number of EVs on Colorado's highways by 26 times in nine years coincides with the United Nations warning of severe and perhaps irreversible consequences without reducing global greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade. On April 20, Biden said a 50% cut is his goal for the nation, as well.
All the while, Colorado’s population is forecast to increase 35% by 2045.
“There’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals, but goals should be reached in a reasonable amount of time,” said Tim Jackson, president of Colorado Automobile Dealers Association. “Unless he (Polis) knows something going on in the industry we don’t know.”
Polis also has instructed the Colorado Department of Transportation to develop a “clean transportation plan.”
He dedicated much of Colorado's $68.7 million windfall from a settlement with Volkswagen over diesel emissions to transportation electrification, including $10.3 million for charging equipment, $30 million for zero-emission (ZEV) replacement buses, $21.5 million for ZEV school buses and $1.5 million to reduce diesel emissions.
Last July the state launched a clean-trucking plan with Colorado Motor Carriers Association to accelerate the turnover of standard diesel vehicles and support development of charging stations that would support moving more freight in electric trucks.
“Our track record as an industry has been one of continuous improvement with emissions on a new diesel truck being down by 95% from one built in 1988," said Greg Fulton, the trade association's president. "We are committed to further improving and reducing our emissions not only to meet EPA standards but more importantly to enhance the quality of life for all Coloradans," noting the 100,000 men and women in the state who work in the industry.
The governor's solutions also can fit in the palm of your hand: On April 19, Polis signed the bipartisan House Bill 1076 to support a carpooling app to encourage and empower more ride-sharing.
"It makes sure we can support one of the many market solutions to climate change, and in addition that it saves people money on their vehicle to get to work and put those costs toward housing, their kids' college or their own retirement," Polis said.
In October 2017, the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming signed on to the Regional Electric Vehicle West memorandum of understanding to space their EV charging stations to create a Western corridor for electrified travel along interstates 70, 76 and 25.
The government is trying to crack a chicken-or-egg problem: Lack of range confidence and higher price points hold down EV sales, but without more sales there won’t be the business to support the margins wanted by private enterprise.
In Colorado, additional hurdles are the lack of EV adoption from rural communities and the fact Coloradans love their trucks and SUVS.
"Colorado is a truck state,” Jackson said.
Of the 5.95 million registered vehicles on Colorado roads, a full 86% are light duty trucks, a vehicle class that includes SUVs and pickups. That's up from 83% of vehicles sold in 2020.
“That’s just huge and monumental growth,” he said. “It’s like Pac-Man eating all the other categories. In the 10 years EVs have been on Colorado roads, they’ve barely got to 5% of cars sold here. It’s taken us a long time to just get there.”
But Toor asserts as more SUVs and pickups become electrified, that love for all-wheel drive and larger capacity vehicles will be met.
"No doubt in order to get widespread adoption in Colorado, we need battery electric and hybrid versions of those crossover vehicles, SUVs and 4X4s," Toor said. "But they're coming. No doubt once they're widely available, they'll be best sellers in Colorado."
JD Power, the consumer intelligence firm, released a survey in January that indicated would-be buyers suffer from "range anxiety," the top reason people don't consider an EV.
The Colorado Energy office says there are 3,400 publicly available charging ports across the state. The Department of Revenue said there are about 45,000 gas and diesel pumps.
Colorado awarded a contract to a vendor called ChargePoint to build fast-charging stations at 33 sites along the state’s major transportation corridors using the Volkswagen settlement.
In January, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel Energy’s $110 million transportation electrification plan, a three-year plan for up to 20,000 charging stations at residential, commercial and public locations, as well as rebates, advisory services and research projects.
Toor said implementation slowed down during the pandemic, but the pace is picking up. And while a vast majority of those are in metro Denver — where the state's greatest population mass exists — and along interstate highways such as I-25 and I-70, Toor said rural areas need sites to drive EV adoption, too.
"It's important that infrastructure reaches across the state, and doesn't leave any areas behind the way many parts of the state were left behind on broadband coverage," Toor said. "The state is so focused on fast-charging stations on the highway corridors. It's taken a little longer than planned because of the pandemic, but by the end of the summer there will be charging stations every five miles. That will go a long ways towards addressing concerns of getting where we need to go."
EV Trail announced April 22 it installed the first DC Fast Charger in Huerfano County in Walsenburg. It halves the state's longest DC Fast Charger gap on I-25, which is 92 miles between Trinidad and Pueblo.
Distance isn't the only barrier.
Jackson thinks the higher upfront price to buy an EV drives away interest, even though drivers might eventually recoup that in fuel savings and reduced maintenance.
Customers also are concerned about the length of charging time and how the power supply is affected by weather extremes, he said.
“I just saw a AAA study showing an EVs range can go down as much as 40% when the weather is under 20 degrees,” Jackson said.
Two new EV retailers in Denver want to help the state reach its lofty 2030 goal.
Swedish eCar company Polestar earlier this month opened its retail shop Polestar Spaces in Cherry Creek at 257 Fillmore St. Upstart Canadian EV company ElectraMeccanica will open its retail store in Park Meadows Mall in June to roll out its one-seater EV SOLO.
Denver was the first location off the coasts for Polestar, which offers its flagship EV Polestar2.
“The Denver market has doubled up extremely quickly on EVs, judging by registration statistics and sales data,” said Gregor Hembrough, head of Polestar USA. “But that’s historical data. We want to be where the iron is hot.”
And Denver is apparently going to get hot, judging by the 164% year-over-year increase in search-engine traffic for “Polestar” or “electric vehicles” from Coloradans, Hembrough said.
“Denver customers are on the forefront of the EV movement. We’ve also found that Colorado customers are very eco-friendly and sustainability-oriented, so much so that a recent poll we conducted showed they’re willing to pay up to 51% more to get eco-friendly or sustainable," he said. "We see a maturity there, and future maturity when it comes to an EV infrastructure.”
"Retailers are flocking to Denver," Toor said. "The industry sees Colorado has real growth opportunity and it's an important market."
While the Polestar2, priced at $60,000, is available immediately — the $18,500 EV SOLO can be ordered now with a deposit, but it won’t arrive until 2022.
“We’re not saying people are going to completely move away from trucks or SUVs,” ElectraMeccanica CEO Paul Rivera said. “But how many times do you go somewhere by yourself- to the office, or the grocery store? This can be a solution to urban driving challenges.”
Political grab bag
Polis isn't the only politician trading on politically green capital. The Democratic Party is replete with supporters of the Green New Deal, though only Joe Neguse of Lafayette from Colorado has officially signed on.
On April 28, Neguse was the only member of Colorado's congressional delegation to sign on to a letter, with dozens of other progressive lawmakers, to urged the House to invest more in low- or no-emission travel.
“As we make much-needed investments in our nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems, it’s essential these investments acknowledge the climate crisis and put us on track to lower emissions," Neguse said.
In March 2019, John Hickenlooper, the former governor now in the U.S. Senate, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, saying the aggressive climate plan sets the nation up for failure, citing technologically unachievable goals in the next decade.
"Amid this technological innovation, we need to ensure that energy is not only clean but also affordable," Hickenlooper wrote. "Millions of Americans struggle with 'energy poverty.' Too often, low-income Americans must choose between paying for medicine and having their heat shut off."
Biden is onboard with electric vehicles and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
On April 26, the new president rolled back a change put in place by President Trump last year, restoring states' authority to pass clean car standards. Trump had said automakers should not have to abide by a patchwork of standards, based on what each one decides. He said also that his movewould hold down the cost of new vehicles by $3,500.
President Barack Obama ordered automakers in 2012 to improve traditional fuel efficiency by 5% each year until 2026, getting most vehicles up to 54.5 miles per gallon. Last year President Donald Trump rolled it back to 1.5% annually, moving the target to 40 miles per gallon.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who has been criticized by progressives for his lack of embrace for the Green New Deal, has been pushing the EV issue on both environmental and economic grounds, arguing there’s money to be made in the kinds of high-tech industries already gravitating to Colorado.
Bennet has backed transitioning the federal fleet to electric vehicles, and he is the co-sponsor of the Clean School Bus Act to help schools pay to transition their bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles.
In 2010, when Bennet ran for his first full term in the Senate, President Obama endorsed Bennet at a fundraiser touting his goal of making the economy greener.
“I mean, look, we can keep on being consumed by the politics of energy, but we know that there are factories to reopen and assembly lines to restart and workers ready to build wind turbines and solar panels and advanced batteries right here in the United States of America,” Obama told the Colorado Democrats as the nation emerged from the last recession. “We know that whoever leads the clean energy revolution is going to lead the 21st-century economy.
“The people of Colorado understand that. Michael Bennet understands that. And we can’t wait. We can’t wait, because China is not waiting. India is not waiting. Germany is not waiting. We can’t afford to wait.”
For 10 years, the nation has waited.
No single answer
Cars and trucks can't begin to shoulder the responsibility alone, experts told Colorado Politics.
The governor's much broader climate agenda, among other things, moves the state to all-renewable energy by 2040, the first campaign pledge he made after announcing plans to run for the office in 2017.
The goal is to decarbonize transportation, but it’s not a silver bullet, said Ben Holland, the senior associate on the mobility team for the Rocky Mountain Institute, an international green energy think tank based in Basalt.
“Our analysis shows that even under the most optimistic scenario for electric vehicle adoption, we still need to reduce our dependence on driving.”
Though the institute is a big proponent of electric vehicles, mass transit, bike lanes and other alternative modes are additional but better solutions.
To limit the planet from heating up more than 1 degree Celsius by the end of the next century, Colorado would need 1.5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, Holland said, noting that’s a 44-fold increase.
“Even given that scenario we’ll still need to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20%,” Holland said. “(It’s) a very significant task we have ahead of us.”
Skeptics would remind EV zealots that tailpipe emissions don't tell the whole story. Zero-emission vehicles help, for sure, but their production, batteries and the electricity that powers them all produce emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy has a tool that shows the impact of total vehicle emissions by state. While gasoline-powered rides produce about 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, EVs still produce about 5,000 pounds, and hybrid's more 6,000 pounds.
Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry trade group, said fossil fuels will be part of the mix for the foreseeable future, and this state should be part of the solution.
“All energy has tradeoffs, and that’s the discussion we should be having,” he told northern Colorado chamber officials. “I appreciate the need for more electric vehicles, but to create a 1,000-pound electric battery takes 500,000 pounds of raw materials that’s resourced from some other place on earth, and I can’t imagine that is done without emissions, so what are we trading off here by trying to limit fossil fuels by trying to limit natural gas?”
Building wind turbines depends on oil and gas, “a product we should want to develop in Colorado under these standards that have been developed by the state,” Haley said.
This story was updated to note that vehicles are a subset of all transportation emissions, which are the state's largest single source greenhouse gases. It also corrects the number of new vehicles sold in the first quarter.