Aerial view of intersecting roadways.
Credit: Aleksejs Bergmanis / Creative Commons

While a shift to electric vehicles can help curb climate change, advocates say policymakers should start work now so the transition is just and equitable.

That process, they say, should look not just at electric vehicle policy, but also bigger questions about how a car-dependent transportation system leaves people behind.

Electric vehicles currently account for less than 2% of Ohio’s new car registrations. However, the state now has 33,000-plus registrations for non-gasoline and non-diesel vehicles, more than twice as many as at the end of 2020. A 2020 report from the Ohio Department of Transportation noted that by 2030 one in five new car sales in the United States will likely be an electric vehicle. And BloombergNEF analysts forecast last summer that at least two-thirds of global car sales will be electric by 2040.

“If we’re not thoughtful about extending access in a couple of different ways, there’s a real possibility that you could end up having cross-subsidization of electric vehicle ownership of affluent Ohioans from people without electric vehicles and who don’t have means,” said Tom Bullock, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Ohio.

A Jan. 18 report by CUB Ohio notes obstacles that people in low-income groups face in buying, financing and charging electric vehicles, including limited options for charging them. Yet current buyers’ incentives, such as a tax credit up to $7,500, largely favor people with above-average incomes who buy new cars, not used ones.

The report’s policy recommendations include grid improvements and expanded overnight charging options for apartment buildings and neighborhoods. Imposing income limits on any tax breaks or other subsidies and allowing them for used cars are also options. 

‘Cars are already expensive’

But equity concerns go beyond who can own an electric car.

“Electric vehicles are necessary to shift out of the emissions that we see from tailpipes. And that’s all well and good,” said Akshai Singh, an organizer with the MOVE Ohio coalition who did not work on the CUB Ohio report. “But we know that around 10% of Ohioans don’t have access to a vehicle.”

“Cars are already expensive,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, who also did not work on the CUB Ohio report. Electric cars have lower operating and maintenance costs, compared to cars that burn fossil fuels. But autonomous driving technology and other advances could add to costs, she said.

Instead of focusing mainly on car ownership, “there has to be a thoughtful approach to public transportation,” Woodrum said. “We have underinvested in it for so long.” As a result, the level of service to Ohioans is “nowhere even close to where it once was — let alone close to where it should be.”

“Especially in Ohio, we’ve made car access a really deep and intrinsic part of being able to engage economically,” Singh said. Better public transit would mean better access to jobs and the ability to move ahead financially.

Among other things, policies should aim to increase electric vehicles for both public transit systems and school busing, the CUB Ohio report said. A small number of Ohio transit systems already are adding electric buses, including those serving Columbus and Lake County. But high penetration is a challenge when systems are already strapped for funds.

Car-share options also can help, Bullock said. One small program in Ohio’s Lorain County has two cars based in Oberlin, plus a third in Elyria that gives priority to people at a homeless shelter and job reentry agency. Broader car-share programs could promote the idea of transportation as an available service, versus something people need to own, Bullock said.   

The shift to electrified transportation must also address housing and land use issues, Singh said. In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, “we use more land for parking than we do dedicated to actual housing.” Overall, they said, the state needs more communities where people can safely get around by public transit, as well as biking and walking. People with disabilities can find it especially hard to navigate “a hazardous and hostile built environment.”

Beyond the ride

“Public policy has to be focused on bringing the benefits of electrification to everybody, particularly those who don’t have the interest or the means of having an electric vehicle themselves,” said Martin Cohen, an energy policy consultant who wrote much of the CUB Ohio report.

Lower pollution from electric vehicles could benefit a wide range of people. Particulate pollution and other emissions are especially high in low-income urban neighborhoods, Bullock noted. Those areas are often more likely to be close to major roads and freeways or near industrial facilities that emit pollution and have frequent truck traffic.

Electrifying truck fleets and other commercial traffic could help beyond adding more clean energy buses, Bullock said. However, long-haul vehicles will continue to present challenges for a while.

More electric vehicles also could help lower electric rates for people who don’t own or drive them. More vehicles on the road will increase electricity demand, Cohen said. Lower time-of-use rates can shift that demand to times when the grid already has extra capacity, such as nighttime. That could avoid the need for new generating facilities and their associated costs.

In other words, “they don’t need to buy any more lemons to sell this lemonade,” Bullock said. And even with time-of-use rates, utilities could expect more total revenue. If regulators account for that in ratemaking cases, the result could lower overall electricity costs for all consumers.

“If we’re doing this well, everybody in Ohio can benefit, even people who never drive an electric vehicle,” Bullock said. Yet achieving that benefit would require more traditional ratemaking cases at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, compared to the add-on rider approach that’s been prevalent over the last decade.

“We’ve got to have more regular utility rate cases,” Bullock said. FirstEnergy hasn’t filed a new tariff case since 2007, for example, and it doesn’t have to face a new ratemaking case until 2024. Instead, Ohio utilities have relied on so-called Electric Security Plans, which have generally added on riders without a comprehensive look at utilities’ costs and revenues.

Other issues

Other regulatory questions raised by the CUB Ohio report include whether lawmakers and regulators will encourage the Public Utilities Commission to consider and weigh social and environmental impacts more as they review rates or explore car charging and related issues. Regulators’ involvement has been limited so far, although AEP Ohio has had a pilot electric vehicle charging program. And an AEP Ohio settlement agreement approved in November 2021 includes a pilot program for 500 electric vehicle customers to save money by charging at off-peak hours.

Meanwhile, Ohio continues to charge all-electric vehicle owners $200 per year for their car registrations — about three times as much as that paid by owners of gasoline-powered cars. The extra paid by electric vehicle drivers is more than what the average driver of a gasoline-powered car pays in taxes for the upkeep of Ohio’s roads, Cohen said.

Jobs are another focus for equity advocates. Northeast Ohio’s “Voltage Valley” area is developing a workforce and aiming to attract more jobs for burgeoning growth in electric vehicle manufacturing. And companies that make car bodies, tires and other auto components likewise can continue to do well as more electric vehicles enter the market.

On the other hand, plants that have made transmissions or internal combustion engines could see demand fall. Planning should begin to help workers transition, Woodrum said. Similar efforts will likely be necessary for some maintenance workers at public transit systems, she added.

Ohio’s transition to electric vehicles won’t happen overnight. But neither will the policy measures that advocates say are needed. In more ways than one, transportation electrification will be a long road to haul.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.