A row of electric and hybrid vehicles gather at a charging station.
Credit: Bill Abbott / Flickr / Creative Commons

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Vermont’s road to reduced greenhouse gas emissions will likely require converting tens of thousands of drivers to electric vehicles this decade.

That’s according to a recent report by Vermont’s Energy Action Network that modeled a technically feasible scenario for achieving the state’s legally mandated climate goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Transportation was projected to provide the largest share of the state’s reductions this decade, with electrification playing the biggest role in that category.

“We don’t intend for this model to be an exact prescription of everything that must be done to exactly this level,” said Jared Duval, executive director at the nonprofit Energy Action Network. “It is meant to really illustrate the overall scale and pace of change that will be necessary” for the state to meet its targets, he said.

The report was timed so it can help inform the Vermont Climate Council as it nears a December deadline to deliver official recommendations to state leaders on how to meet the state’s emission reduction targets.

The model shows increasing the number of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the road from about 4,300 now to 47,000 by mid-decade and 120,000 by 2030. It’s ambitious but doable, the report says.

“Those numbers are daunting, but we cannot shy away from them, and we need to work toward those goals,” said Gina Campoli, a retired former environmental policy manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation and a member of one of the Climate Council’s subcommittees. “It’s critical in a rural setting to be able to have electric vehicles as a way of getting around and not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

Advocates say expanding electric vehicles on that scale — a 30-fold increase — will require a significant ramp-up in incentives for new vehicles, an expanded used vehicle market and more chargers, among other things. 

The model shows that improvements to internal combustion engine vehicle efficiency will make a bigger contribution than electric vehicles to meet the state’s 2025 target of reducing emissions at least 26% below 2005 levels. That’s because there will likely still be many gas vehicles on the road. After that, the model shows electric vehicles making a greater contribution, since EV adoption will presumably be much greater in the second half of the decade than it is now.

Duval noted that despite the relatively large contribution by more efficient internal combustion engine vehicles in the near term, electric vehicles “will always result in a bigger emissions reduction” than internal combustion engine efficiency improvements on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis.

“We’ve certainly seen in the last year, and over the last number of years, an increasing share of electric vehicles being sold in Vermont,” he said.

As of August, new electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid vehicle registrations made up an estimated 5.1% of the state’s total market share, compared to 2.7% last August, according to data compiled by the Vermont Vehicle and Automotive Distributors Association. As of July, combined new vehicle registrations for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were 4.8%, compared with 2.7% last year. For July 2019, the association recorded combined registrations of 2.2%.

The near doubling of market share from last year to this year indicates potential for exponential growth, Duval said. If that’s the case going forward, market share of cleaner vehicles could rapidly increase. To get to the levels of market penetration modeled in the group’s report, the Energy Action Network said about one in four new personal vehicles purchased in Vermont over the next five years would have to be electric or plug-in hybrid, followed by one in two from 2026-2030.

“Those are ambitious adoption numbers for sure,” said Dave Roberts, a senior consultant at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. Roberts coordinates the Drive Electric Vermont program, which administers the state electric vehicle rebates. The most recent state transportation bill, passed in June, allocated $2.7 million for incentives. According to Drive Electric Vermont, about $1.8 million remains, but Roberts said some of the funding distributed so far was retroactive to earlier in the year.

Vermont doesn’t yet have the data to know exactly what policies and programs will be necessary to increase electric vehicle uptake, Daniel Dutcher, senior environmental policy manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, wrote in an email. The agency is one of several state departments represented on the Climate Council. Despite the lack of data, “from our own experience and those of other jurisdictions, we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do,” Dutcher said.

“A multi-pronged strategy would include, among other things, vehicle incentive programs, charging-station planning and grant programs, consumer and dealer education and outreach, continued participation in the California waiver and zero-emission-vehicle action plans, state fleet procurement, and utility rate design,” Dutcher said. “Vermont is working in all these areas.”

The Climate Council is waiting for an economic analysis from a pair of consulting groups, which is likely to come later in the fall, to help guide the development of its recommendations. Duval said the analysis will likely describe the net costs and savings for Vermont to make the kind of large-scale change outlined in the Energy Action Network report. 

The strategies in the council’s final plan won’t necessarily be the same as what the Energy Action Network report models. And the plan will only be a roadmap for legislators and the executive branch, not set policy. It’s up to those officials to develop future programming.

“In any case, much higher numbers of electric vehicles are likely to be on the policy agenda,” Roberts said.

Upfront cost is frequently cited by consumers as the top barrier to uptake of electric vehicles, making incentives a key necessity in future policy, Roberts said. The state currently offers incentives of up to $4,000 on new plug-in vehicle purchases, depending on income level and whether the vehicle is hybrid or all-electric. Certain utilities offer incentives that can run to more than $2,000, depending on income level and the type of car purchased. Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 are available too, as well as incentives from some automakers and dealers.

Charging access is also considered a large barrier. Even though most charging is done at home, there’s still concern about traveling and not having access to chargers on the road. Additionally, people who live in apartments — which includes many of the state’s low-income residents — often don’t have access to home charging.

That means initiatives that increase charging in apartment buildings and in public spaces will be important. Vermont is making some progress on both of those fronts.

The state is preparing to install fast-charging stations in 11 locations, which could be installed as soon as this year, using money from the Volkswagen settlement. Another round of six locations is planned and could follow next year, Roberts said. The transportation bill also included $1 million for a pilot program to install charging stations in multifamily housing, with a focus on low-income housing. As of the beginning of the year, Vermont had the most public chargers per capita of any state in the country according to the federal Department of Energy.

Several advocates said federal funding that could come through the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in front of Congress would also be valuable to increase charging availability.

Another program that has yet to launch that was included in the recent transportation bill will offer income-eligible Vermonters up to $3,000 to turn in their old car to a dealer. The money can be used toward a new electric vehicle or other clean transportation option like an electric bike or public transit passes, and it can be combined with other electric vehicle incentives.

Campoli said that the transportation experts on the Climate Council subcommittee she’s participating in would like to figure out how to expand the used electric vehicle market in Vermont, which is a concern since the relatively small number of used electric vehicles in the state are often moved elsewhere at auction. She also wants to make incentives available for low- and moderate-income residents to purchase used electric cars.

While federal funding would be important, especially upfront, Campoli noted that part of the challenge in designing policy is ensuring sustainable long-term funding is available to achieve the state’s emissions targets. The Climate Council and policymakers will have to figure out what’s realistic. Campoli and others pointed out that the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative could be a valuable source of revenue, but Vermont has yet to join.

Whatever the case, last year’s climate law requires the state to figure out how to reach its goals, because if it doesn’t meet them, the government can be sued. “We really have our hands tied,” Campoli said. “We’ve got to come up with these levers to get to these emissions goals.”

This makes the Climate Council’s work different from previous state efforts to develop energy plans that made recommendations but didn’t result in specific action items. This time, Campoli said, “we have to have strategies that will get there — an implementable policy or law or rule. For me, that’s huge.”

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.