Light trails on a road at night.
Virginia is one of 14 states and the District of Columbia that have followed California’s lead by adopting clean car standards.

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By putting the squeeze on tailpipe emissions, Virginia is prepping to merge into an electric-vehicle fast lane dominated by California, New York, Maryland and other green pacesetters.

Conservationists, health advocates and even some car dealers are cheered that Virginia has become the first in the South — and the 15th overall — to adopt legislation directing automakers to deliver higher inventories of cleaner, fuel-efficient, and electric light- and medium-duty vehicles to the state. 

“This is groundbreaking legislation for Virginia,” transportation specialist Trip Pollard said about the General Assembly green-lighting Clean Cars Virginia. “It’s the single largest step Virginia has taken to cut carbon emissions.”

Pollard is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, part of a coalition of 20 or so businesses and faith, social justice and health advocates that elevated Clean Cars to top priority status in Richmond.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill by the end-of-the-month deadline.

It’s Virginia’s second blow to carbon pollution in a one-two legislative punch aimed at taming the top two offenders, the power and transportation sectors. The first, the grid-decarbonizing Virginia Clean Economy Act, took effect last July. It requires the state’s two investor-owned utilities to switch away from fossil fuels — Dominion Energy by 2045 and Appalachian Power by 2050.

Nationwide, transportation began outpacing power as the leading emitter of heat-trapping gases several years ago. Still, at an estimated 48%, Virginia tailpipe emissions are unusually high.

A January study for the Georgetown Climate Center estimates unclogging a bottleneck on low- and zero-emissions vehicles statewide will reduce emissions by some 48 million metric tons by 2040. That’s the equivalent of taking more than 10 million gasoline-powered vehicles off the Virginia roadways for a year.

“The legislation doesn’t kick in for at least a couple of years,” Pollard said. “It really marks a decided turn to accelerating a transition to cleaner vehicles.”

House Bill 1965 passed the Senate on a 21-15 vote and the House 53-44, on a final vote.

To date, Virginia is one of 14 states and the District of Columbia — which make up 40% of the auto market — that have followed California’s lead by adopting clean car standards. They are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The Clean Air Act allows California to be more progressive and for other states to follow suit. 

While Virginia “still has a long way to go” on streamlining its transportation sector, Pollard noted that gains this legislative session would certainly boost its current 16th place ranking in a first-ever scorecard by a nonprofit that rates how states measured up on preparing for an electric vehicle future.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy issued its report in early February before Virginia legislators passed the Clean Cars legislation.

California, which scored 91 out of a possible 100 points, was far and away the national leader in enabling the use of electric vehicles, according to data gathered for the council’s State Transportation Electrification Scorecard. Pacesetters New York, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington state, Vermont, Colorado, Oregon and New Jersey rounded out the top 10.

The authors gave Virginia a shoutout for its top performance in the Southeast, earning 36 points. They praised its incentives for time-varying electric rates for home and workplace chargers, efforts to green the grid, and expanding fleets of transit e-buses and e-trucks used at ports and for freight delivery.

“If Virginia can finish 16th, it just speaks to the lack of progress nationwide,” Pollard said. “It shows that the state has begun to take some strides. But after this session, Virginia will jump in the rankings.”

Results from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s new State Transportation Electrification Scorecard. (Credit: ACEEE)

Most states easing barriers to electric vehicles — slowly

Washington, D.C.-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is well known and respected for its long-running scorecards that compare states on building-related energy efficiency measures.

This report’s lead author, Bryan Howard, said he and four other colleagues spent six months through December combing through transportation data so states could find out where they stood beyond their own borders. At its core, the analysis evaluates states on specific actions to support transportation electrification in the light-duty and heavy-duty sectors.

ACEEE evaluated progress states made ramping up electric vehicles and affiliated charging infrastructure and also reducing transportation sector emissions.

Points were awarded in six broad scoring categories, and each one of those included explicit metrics. Categories included planning and goal-setting, financial and non-financial incentives for deployment, improving access to clean mobility and reducing emissions, maximizing charging reliability while minimizing grid costs and emissions, equity, and adoption, installation and emissions outcomes.

The biggest surprise in the 174-page scorecard? That only five states and the nation’s capital garnered more than 50 points.

“To me, that indicates that even the early adapters have a long way to go,” said Howard, state policy director at ACEEE.

The research also reinforced how ill-prepared states are at integrating electric vehicle charging into building codes, he said, adding that California is the only state that folds in residential, multifamily and commercial buildings.

“California saw this trend ahead of others,” he said. “The range and diversity in other states is pretty wide. We’re going to have to get a lot smarter.”

Information for just 30 states and the District of Columbia are included in the report because Howard and his colleagues opted not to include the remaining 20  that earned fewer than 15 points. Many of the laggards are in the Southeast, the Great Plains and near the Great Lakes.

California scored the highest — 8.5 out of 10 possible points — in the equity category, which calculated if states ensured electric vehicle access in low-income, economically distressed and environmental justice communities. New York came in second with five points, while Virginia joined numerous other states in the zero column. 

Howard said mostly across-the-board low scores on that front could evolve if regulators are prompted to become more aggressive in spelling out what specific actions utilities need to take to include communities that are often left behind. 

He praised Virginia for being one of the few states to roll transportation electrification into its state energy plan. The latest iteration of that blueprint issued by the Northam administration lists the adoption of standards for clean cars in its proposals for limiting carbon pollution from power plants and vehicles.

While an annual analysis of this magnitude is not in ACEEE’s plans, researchers will review and update the inaugural scorecard periodically to reflect legislative changes nationwide.

“It’s exciting to see Virginia building momentum,” Howard said. “Clean Cars isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s an example of positive legislation that keeps the state on a good pace for progress.”

The broader EV package

While Clear Cars is the environmental luminary of this year’s General Assembly, it’s just part of a package of related bills.

For instance, HB 1979 reduces the upfront cost of an electric vehicle with a $2,500 point-of-sale rebate for Virginians purchasing new, used or leased vehicles up to $55,000. Low-to-moderate-income buyers receive an additional $2,000. 

The catch is that while that bill’s framework exists, its budget was zeroed out because the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a figure. That will likely be broached by legislators next year.

“It’s disappointing because it’s good policy to offer a rebate because electric vehicles still cost more upfront,” Pollard said. “But this needs to be set up right. This allows time to strengthen the bill, educate legislators and get more robust funding.”

There’s an outside chance the governor could fund it by amending the budget, but that’s unlikely because no figure was in his original budget.

Electric vehicle rebates are hot potatoes across the country as legislators fret about subsidizing a purchase that will be made anyway or seen as an unnecessary giveaway to wealthier residents. 

Both HB 2282 and SB 1223 also address electric vehicles. The first directs the State Corporation Commission to deliver a report by May 2022 detailing utility programs that can accelerate transportation electrification. The second amends the Virginia Energy Plan to include an analysis of the charging infrastructure necessary to support a 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector. 

“Clean Cars is the most significant of the four,” Pollard said, “but they all work together and are complementary.”

In a nutshell, it sets two standards. One requires manufacturers to roll out vehicles that steadily decrease emissions of heat-trapping gases, soot and smog-forming pollutants. The other requires a wider array of electric cars, SUVs and pickups, known as zero-emissions vehicles.

Those standards are connected with the federal Clean Air Act, so a two-year lag time is required. Clean Cars will likely line up with the rollout of electric vehicles for model year 2025. The Virginia Air Pollution Control Board would be tasked with adopting regulations.

Wendy Philleo, executive director of Generation 180, called it a milestone that is a key to innovation, better health, a safer climate and more economic opportunity across Virginia.

Last November, Philleo’s Charlottesville nonprofit released a comprehensive report indicating that more than half of Virginians are amenable to electrifying their next ride. But barriers such as a shortage of car lot inventory and a lack of point-of-sale rebates are stalling the electric vehicle adoption rate at below 2% statewide. Nationwide, Virginia ranks 13th in EV sales.

The advocacy arm of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network praised House Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, for sponsoring Clean Cars.

Kim Jemaine, Virginia director of the network’s Action Fund, emphasized the link between tailpipe emissions and asthma, other respiratory diseases and an array of health setbacks.

Exhaust pollutants such as fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds can disproportionately affect families living near highways, often low-income residents and minorities. Those populations, plus the elderly, experience a 61% higher death rate attributable to Virginia vehicle air pollution. 

The overall health burden caused by just fine particulate matter contained within Virginia’s vehicle emissions amounts to $750 million annually, according to a study prepared for Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.

Jemaine called Clean Cars a victory for consumer choice, public health and the planet.

“The transportation sector has historically been a source of environmental injustice,” she said. “Virginians, especially Black and Brown folks, have suffered unnecessarily high rates of cancer, heart disease and other related illnesses.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.