A vehicle to fight climate change
A 2018 executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper was North Carolina’s most ambitious approach to fight climate change in more than a decade. The plan forecast a future that is likely to be powered by renewable energy and driven by electric vehicles. But is the state meeting those goals? Are consumers and car dealers embracing zero-emission transportation? And can lawmakers cross the political divide to enact additional guidance for the state’s future?
All of the single-family houses in Chatham Park, the 7,000-acre development taking shape in Chatham County south of Chapel Hill, are pre-wired for electric vehicle charging stations.
That’s not to say that everyone who buys a home in the community needs an electric car charger now. Fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids account for less than one half of 1% of cars and trucks registered in North Carolina.
But the company building Chatham Park, Preston Development, is looking ahead and wants to appeal to homebuyers who are doing the same. Along with its own solar farm and clusters of car chargers in public parking lots, the community is being wired for a time when vehicles are not only electric but also autonomous and communicate with each other as they move along the street.
“A lot of our younger buyers are making the decision to buy in Chatham Park because of the sustainability and technology, all these different things we’re focusing on, of which the car chargers is one,” said Chuck Smith, Preston’s vice president of planning. “It’s because of the statement that it’s making, and they prefer to be part of something where there’s this emphasis and a goal for the community.”
No one knows for sure how quickly North Carolinians will make the transition to electric vehicles. But Gov. Roy Cooper wants to speed up the process as part of a larger strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change.
In 2018, Cooper’s Executive Order 80 set a goal of increasing the number of registered zero-emission vehicles or ZEVs in North Carolina to at least 80,000 by 2025. In January, his Executive Order 246 set a new goal of at least 1.25 million registered ZEVs by 2030.
ZEVs currently account for less than 39,000 of the state’s 8.6 million registered vehicles, according to the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Jennifer Weiss, senior adviser for climate change at the N.C. Department of Transportation, says the state is on track to meet Cooper’s initial goal.
“When you consider all the new models and shapes and sizes that are coming out from the auto manufacturers, I think we’re going to easily meet the 80,000 by 2025,” Weiss said. “The 1.25 million is an aggressive goal. I think it’s an achievable goal, but it’s going to take a lot of work from outside of the Department of Transportation to make it happen.”
Weiss heads up a committee that will help NCDOT put together the Clean Transportation Plan, a strategy for “decarbonizing” transportation in North Carolina required by Cooper’s most recent order.
Much of the plan will focus on overcoming physical challenges to adopting ZEVs, such as helping to make charging stations available to drivers where and when they need them.
Weiss said the plan will also address less tangible hurdles, such as the hesitancy of some consumers to switch because of a lack of information or understanding of how ZEVs would work for them.
Jacob Bolin of PlugIn NC, a statewide organization that works to promote electric vehicles, said many people simply don’t know enough to be comfortable with them yet.
“I think that’s probably still the biggest challenge is just what it means to drive an EV and charge an EV on a day-to-day basis,” Bolin said.
‘Economic fascism’ or riding the wave?
Sales of light-duty electric vehicles more than doubled last year in North Carolina, to 12,713, according to Atlas Public Policy, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. In the fourth quarter, EVs accounted for about 4% of all vehicle sales statewide, according to Atlas.
Cooper would like to see zero emission vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, make up half of all vehicle sales in the state by 2030, according to his executive order.
The order and its goals have drawn criticism. Three Republican state senators — Tom McInnis, Paul Newton and Vickie Sawyer — wrote to the governor in January calling his order “political theater” and legally unenforceable. The libertarian John Locke Foundation called it “ridiculously unserious” and characterized Cooper’s goals as quotas imposed on the car industry.
“Government officials dictating what private industries must produce and sell reeks of economic fascism and central planning,” wrote Brian Balfour, the foundation’s senior vice president of research.
But Cooper’s goals may simply reflect the way the industry is moving. Legacy car companies such as Ford and Volkswagen, joined by startups such as Lucid and Rivian, are spending tens of billions on new models and new factories for electric cars, SUVS and pickups. General Motors says it will phase out the manufacturing of petroleum-powered vehicles altogether by 2035.
Meanwhile, Toyota announced in December that it will build a $1.29 billion factory in Randolph County to manufacture hybrid and electric vehicle batteries as part of its goal to make 70% of its cars electric by the end of the decade. And late last month, Vietnamese carmaker VinFast said it would spend $4 billion to build a plant in Chatham County capable of churning out 200,000 electric SUVs a year.
Still, supporters of electric vehicles say there’s a role for government to play in pushing things along.
Federal tax credits have helped overcome some of the difference in price for electric cars and trucks, which have gotten cheaper but still cost more on average than gas-powered vehicles. Analysts with Morgan Stanley, BloombergNEF and other firms predict that gap will disappear in the coming years as manufacturers gear up to mass produce ZEVs.
Advocates say government should also help by ensuring that charging stations are widely available, in rural areas as well as urban and in lower-income neighborhoods as well as communities like Chatham Park.
Public utilities play a role in easing transition
The lack of public charging stations is evident in places such as northeastern North Carolina where Roanoke Electric Cooperative provides power to homes and businesses. CEO Marshall Cherry said two years ago the seven rural counties the cooperative serves had just two public EV charging stations.
Now it has about two dozen, most clustered along Interstate 95, but Cherry says more are needed if residents are going to feel comfortable buying an electric vehicle. Roanoke Electric is taking steps to encourage ZEVs, including offering special flat rates for charging electric vehicles at home. Cherry said the co-op also plans to buy two used Nissan Leafs that its customers can drive to experience an EV for themselves.
“We still have some work to do,” he said in an interview. “But we want to be a part of that movement.”
North Carolina’s largest utility, Duke Energy, is also experimenting with programs and products to encourage EV use. This winter, state regulators approved a “make-ready” program that allows the company to help homeowners and businesses pay for upgrades needed to install EV chargers, with the understanding that it will make up the investment with higher energy sales.
Duke is preparing for a future when millions of cars and trucks will run on electricity instead of gasoline. That includes beefing up its distribution system to serve the high-speed charging stations that will line major highways the way gas stations do now, said Jay Oliver, who oversees grid management for the company.
In December, Duke announced that it had joined a coalition of 53 power companies nationwide that pledged to build a network of fast-charging stations along major highways by the end of 2023.
Duke also plans to offer a variety of rates and programs that encourage people to charge their vehicles at night or other off-peak hours, Oliver said.
“It can be a little bit intimidating, going with an electric vehicle, and we don’t think it needs to be,” Oliver said. “We think we can help our customers with that transition so they’re much more comfortable doing it.”
Electric chargers as the gas stations of the future
There are three kinds of car chargers: two slow ones that charge vehicles while they’re parked overnight or for long periods during the day, and fast chargers for people on longer trips
The slowest charger is the cord that comes with the vehicle; it plugs into a standard 120-volt wall socket and takes all day or more for a full charge. A Level 2 system, by comparison, plugs into a 240-volt outlet, like ones used by clothes dryers, and can charge a car in four to five hours. Experts say 80% to 90% of charging takes place at home using these slower chargers.
Level 2 chargers are also the kind that governments and businesses install on streets and in parking lots and allow people to tap for free. Businesses may want to continue to offer that perk as a way to draw in customers, but local governments will want to ease out of it, said Megan Anderson, the sustainability manager for the City of Raleigh.
“Most cities are not charging to charge in North Carolina right now, but we don’t want to hinder or compete with the private market that is going to charge,” Anderson told a forum on electric vehicles last month. “So we need to start charging, too. We just need to figure out how to do that.”
The third kind of charger is known as DC fast-charging, which can fully recharge a vehicle’s batteries in 20 or 30 minutes. These are the kinds that travelers use to buy electricity while they’re on the road, much the way drivers fill their tanks with gas.
Chargers are not yet as common as gas stations, though, and people going long distances must consult online guides, such as one found on the PlugIn NC website, pluginnc.com/find-a-charging-station/.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill passed by Congress last fall includes $7.5 billion to help create a national network of fast-charging stations. North Carolina will receive $109 million for chargers over five years and can apply for additional grants, according to the administration.
Private companies, such as EVgo and Volkswagen subsidiary Electrify America, are also creating networks of fast-charging stations. Meanwhile, the National Association of Convenience Stores offers advice for store owners who want to continue to be the “fueling destination for the traveling public” in an electric future.
Weiss at NCDOT says the future of electric vehicle charging will be private.
“I‘ve actually talked to retailers or convenience stores who are connected to gas stations, and they are already starting to think about how they’re building into the transition,” she said. “So I see us as kind of kick-starting it a little bit, and then the market forces will start to work.”
Executive order ‘something to rally around’
Weiss and her group have a year to develop the Clean Transportation Plan, which isn’t all about electric vehicles and charging stations. The committee will also look at reducing how much people drive or “vehicles miles traveled,” through land-use patterns, beefing up buses and other mass transit and by making it easier to walk or ride a bike.
Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who serves on the committee, hopes those other strategies get enough attention. It’s easy for NCDOT to get too focused on electric vehicles, Hunter said.
“They are more comfortable in that area because really that’s just like switching one type of car for another car and making sure you got charging stations,” she said. “The other piece, of VMT reduction and increasing other modes, is a lot more tricky. …. I just really want to make sure that this is a broad-ranging plan that includes all of these different approaches.”
Cooper says he wants the plan to include strategies state agencies can enact on their own, as well as measures that would require legislation.
As utilities have moved away from coal, transportation has become the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The transition to cleaner electric-powered vehicles would likely happen on its own to some extent, says Oliver at Duke Energy, but Cooper’s executive order will speed things along.
“When the government gives us a goal as a state, and pulls together multiple parties to make it happen, it just makes change happen a little quicker,” Oliver said. “It gives us something to rally around.”