As Vermont races to switch drivers from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles, the landscape for buyers — and path to finding the right state and federal incentives — can be complex.
Transportation is responsible for more emissions than any other sector in the state, and Vermont set a stated goal of drastically increasing the number of EVs on the road so it could meet the requirements of the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act.
The state is also moving forward with a regulation that, if enacted, would require manufacturers to phase out all new internal combustion vehicles in Vermont by 2035, though Vermonters could still buy gasoline and diesel cars in Vermont through the used car market.
With a bevy of new federal funding for electric vehicle infrastructure, advertised incentives for buyers and the pending regulations, Jenny Carter, assistant professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, said she’s fielded questions from many Vermonters who want to know more about EVs.
Carter and Molly Smith, program coordinator at Vermont Law and Graduate School and chair of the Hartford Energy Commission, recently co-authored a user-friendly guide that covers the basics about buying electric vehicles, focused on the Upper Valley.
While most elements of the guide are relevant to all Vermonters, including the state and federal incentives, Vermonters should check with their electric utilities for utility-specific incentives.
In a recent conversation with VTDigger, Carter gave answers to big-picture questions about EVs in the state. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VTDigger: While lawmakers did boost funding for public transportation during the last legislative session, it often feels as though Vermont’s emissions conversation is centered on electric vehicles, as opposed to other climate-focused transportation measures. Why are electric vehicles an important piece of the puzzle?
Jenny Carter: I’m always going to encourage anybody who has the option to walk, bike-ride, take car shares or take public transit. That’s almost always going to be the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At this point in time, it’s just not realistic to think everybody’s going to be able to take advantage of one of those options.
Realistically, for so many Vermonters — particularly those who live outside of Burlington or Rutland or another downtown area — there’s no way around needing a vehicle. Cars are a fact of life — if you live out in the rural area, you most likely have to have a vehicle — so let’s look at the way the people who need to drive can bring down their emissions.
VTD: A federal tax credit, which can be as much as $7,500, is available to people who buy electric vehicles. Who qualifies?
Jenny Carter: The federal incentives are what are called non-refundable tax credits. It only applies to individuals who have enough tax liability to take advantage of them — with one exception. Some car dealers, if you lease from them, will in effect, pass on that credit to you through a discounted lease.
VTD: It sounds like the federal tax credit will be more available to wealthy Vermonters than those with lower or middle incomes. Could that incentive still help create a more robust used electric vehicle market in the state?
Jenny Carter: Absolutely. By no means am I saying they should get rid of the federal tax incentive. My big point about the federal tax incentive is that it should be available to anybody, regardless of how much money you earn. Having said that, having that tax incentive out there has not only allowed for there to be a used car market, it also has given manufacturers the jumpstart they need to be able to develop new lines, do further research and give consumers more choice. I think the federal incentive has played a very important role.
VTD: Who qualifies for state incentives?
Jenny Carter: One of the things that people really need to look at, if you’re talking about the incentives, is whether there’s any kind of income qualifying factors, and whether there’s a cap on the cost of the vehicle. The federal program doesn’t have a cap, but the Vermont program does. (More information about incentives is available in the user guide.)
What I think is really terrific about Vermont is that they realized, ‘we’ve got a finite amount of money that we can spend, so instead of giving it to the people who need it the least, the way the federal government does, we’re gonna give it to the people who need it the most.’ ]
VTD: The Ford F-150 pickup truck, one of the most popular cars in the state, now comes in a new electric model, called the F-150 Lightning. We haven’t seen many of those on the road yet here — why?
Jenny Carter: The thing that we’re running up against right now is, because of the pandemic, there were all these supply chain issues that have come up. People are going to have to be patient and persistent, and maybe a little flexible, with what vehicle they want. If you want to get an electric vehicle right now, you can certainly find them, but if there’s a specific one you have your heart on, you may have to wait a few weeks, up to a few months, to get an order filled.
VTD: As of 2022, consumers can choose from 40 different models of electric vehicles in the state. How do electric vehicles compare to traditional internal combustion cars?
Jenny Carter: Now, just looking at the price of gas — even if climate change isn’t your motivator, electric vehicles are now clearly a financial winner for consumers, at least over the long haul. For Green Mountain Power customers, if you agree to their terms, you can get your electricity for the equivalent of $1 a gallon. And if you’re not in their program, using today’s average electric rates in the state, to charge an EV is approximately the equivalent of $1.50 a gallon.
VTD: Is the technology for electric vehicles likely to change enough in the coming years that Vermonters looking to purchase an EV should wait?
Jenny Carter: Most of the EVs are in the 250-mile range now. There are quite a number that are in the 300-mile range. I mean, you can drive to Boston on a single charge with most electric vehicles. That’s not going to be enough for everybody, but with the level three charger, if there’s a level three charging station, which is on the way to Boston, you can charge your vehicle in roughly half an hour.
VTD: Is Vermont’s grid ready for all of these electric vehicles?
Jenny Carter: Issues surrounding the grid are complex. In the immediate future, where an entire neighborhood has EVs, they may need a new transformer. But when talking about the grid as a whole, there is a great deal of unused capacity. Overstressing the system at times of peak demand causes the most trouble. Implementing time-of-use rates, which encourage charging at the best times, can allow for a large influx of EVs without overwhelming the grid.
VTD: Is our electricity clean enough to make this big switch worthwhile?
Jenny Carter: Studies have shown, even if you’re using dirty fuel sources, because electric vehicles are still more efficient in using the fuel than gasoline vehicles, for the most part — not an absolute rule — electric vehicles are still more efficient. But clearly, the best of all worlds is to have electric vehicle batteries being powered through renewable sources.
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