As electric vehicles gain a foothold in the U.S. auto market, manufacturers are seeing their highest EV sales in west coast cities and states. Data from research firm R.L. Polk shows that Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are three of the five cities that account for 52 percent of electric vehicles on the roads, while California and Washington rank 1st and 3rd, respectably, for sales. These locations are also responsible for significant shares of hybrid sales. Surprisingly, neither Portland nor Oregon rank high on either list, though that could be because of its relatively lower population. The findings can be explained through government incentives, EV infrastructure, and progressive tendencies of west coast residents.
California captures 32 percent of the electric vehicle market, and while this may be partly due to sheer population, the state also has a plethora of incentives for individuals, including a $2,500 rebate, and business to purchase EVs and charging stations. In Washington, all non-gasoline vehicles are exempt from the state sales tax of 6.5 percent. Atlanta and New York City were also in the top five list; according to Plug In America, Georgia offers a 20 percent rebate up to $5,000 on EV purchases, and it and New York grant EVs access to carpool lanes. On top of state rebates, the federal government also offers a $2,500 to $7,500 rebate depending on the battery size.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center, most of the country’s 6,400 public electric charging stations are concentrated in dense clusters on the east and west coasts. California alone has 1,387, Washington 344, and Oregon 337. In a chicken-and-egg scenario that is familiar to the technology industry, there are political and economic challenges in developing new charging networks in areas that don’t have many EVs, and conversely few people will buy EVs if stations are lacking due to ‘range anxiety‘ and can only charge at home. However, once either EV ownership or stations increase, a market can sufficiently develop. Some Midwest states seem to be starting with stations; Ohio will cover up to 80 percent of the station cost, and Oklahoma will rebate 75 percent. Some incentives also cater to businesses; there is a federal rebate of 30 percent up to $30,000 for to install a commercial charging station. Of course, the most suitable places for electric vehicles are dense and urban with relatively short-distance commutes like the top cities noted earlier, and where EVs can be charged for long periods during workdays or shopping. According to the International Parking Institute, an average vehicle is parked 90 percent of the time, so there are many opportunity for EVs to charge when not in use.
The west is also notable for its West Coast Green Highway, a public-private partnership between agencies and businesses that is planning a network of charging stations on Interstate-5 from British Columbia to southern California to facilitate long-range trips. Currently the Washington and Oregon state departments of transportation manage stations every 25 to 50 miles apart at shopping centers, hotels, and similar locations. The system is part of a larger federal endeavor, The EV Project, to install thousands of chargers nationwide. However, a report from Climate Central finds an average gasoline car or a hybrid will ultimately cause less air pollution in states that rely on coal or natural gas fired power plants. Western EV drivers take advantage of the region’s abundant renewable hydro and wind resources.
Regional charging systems and traditional long haul trips will be more feasible once battery-swap technology replaces commonplace; currently, fully charging an electric vehicle takes anywhere from 2.5 to 12 hours, depending on the type of charger and the battery capacity, but annual fuel costs average just one-third of gasoline cars. Inductive charging simplifies the process by just parking over a charging pad instead of plugging in, but work at the same rate as cables. Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, a California electric car company, has demonstrated a mechanical system that can remove a depleted battery and replace it with a fully charged one in about 90 seconds, comparable to the familiar gasoline fill-up. Assuming the technology is adopted, standardized, and implemented by more companies in the near future, for highway trips battery swapping will be much more convenient than recharging every 100 to 300 miles.
City officials and planners will do well to plan for increased electric vehicles in the years ahead; President Obama made an ambitious goal of getting one million EVs on the road by 2015, and currently the U.S. leads the world in electric vehicles with 116,000 sold since the reintroduction of EVs in 2008. The northwest in particular can’t get enough of them, with demand outpacing supply in some cases; a Nissan dealership in Bellevue is the leading LEAF seller nationwide, and other companies like Ford are heavily targeting the region for continued sales. And grid operators look forward to using electric vehicles as energy sinks during peak energy production. It appears the electric car revolution, after an orchestrated failed restart in the 1990s, is here to stay.