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A lot of folks love electric vehicles. So, why aren't there more in North Carolina?

A driver uses a fast-charging station for electric vehicles at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on April 2. As part of President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, $174 billion would go to supporting the production of electric vehicles in the U.S.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A driver uses a fast-charging station for electric vehicles at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on April 2. As part of President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, $174 billion would go to supporting the production of electric vehicles in the U.S.

Electric vehicles are poised to play a significant role in moving toward a cleaner energy future.

Electric vehicles (EVs) emit fewer greenhouse gases than diesel cars and help improve air pollution.

"We know the future of transportation includes autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, [and] electric vehicles," said North Carolina Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette at a recent press conference. "We've got to... make sure that the access to providing that variety of clean mobility options... is there."

At the same event, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a new executive order with ambitious climate goals, including expanding the target for EVs in North Carolina.

"We’re going to increase the goal of having 1.25 million zero emission vehicles on North Carolina roads by 2030," Cooper said.

This is in addition to a current goal of reaching 80,000 EVs in North Carolina by 2025.

However, as of last month, there’s only about 30,000 zero emission vehicles (ZEV) registered in the state.

There's at least three main reasons as to why there's not more EVs in North Carolina: a lack of availability, infrastructure and education.

Lack of availability

Rick Sapienza, the director of the Clean Transportation program at the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, points out that people need different kinds of cars, and the variety of EVs is still growing.

"We [are getting] more vehicle types: minivans, SUVs, pickup trucks, Sedans... even medium and heavy duty options," Sapienza said. "They’re coming. There’s more and more each year."

But ongoing supply chain issues are causing a shortage of available vehicles.

"You’re waiting months and months for an electric vehicle," Sapienza said. "There’s none on the lots. And if there is one on the lot, it's already sold."

North Carolina state agencies are running into the same problem.

Haley Pfeiffer-Haynes, Deputy Secretary of Service Operations at the state department of administration (DOA), is leading efforts to electrify the state fleet. A recent state report identified about 3,000 state-owned cars that can be switched to EVs over the next few years. However, because of supply chain problems, the state can't get the exact cars they'd prefer.

"We are doing things to improve the gas mileage and improve the greenhouse gas footprint for our fleet, even when we can't replace something with an EV," Pfeiffer-Haynes said. "And to that point, 70% of the cars that we ordered this past year are hybrids."

Hybrid electric cars run on both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor powered by batteries.

Pfeiffer-Haynes agrees that more EVs are joining the market, but adds that these vehicles have a higher upfront cost than diesel cars.

"We're hoping that that dissipates over time as the production ramps up," Pfeiffer-Haynes said.

North Carolina does not have a state tax credit for EVs to help alleviate the upfront cost. There is a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, but it only applies to specific vehicles.

Sapienza argues the upfront cost is worth it in the long run because EVs cost less than diesel cars when it comes to maintenance. He also said the total cost of EVs should go down soon.

"The prediction is within five years, we will be at price parity, meaning it will cost the same to buy an electric SUV or a gasoline SUV or diesel SUV," Sapienza said. "Economies of scale will help drive the price down, the component price will come down. Battery prices have come down significantly, and they still need to come down more."

Lack of infrastructure

State agencies are working to build the infrastructure needed to charge EVs.

As far as funding, some of the money North Carolina is receiving from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill will focus on increasing the number of charging stations. The state has set aside $1 million from the 2016 Volkswagen Settlement to apply for grants to install even more infrastructure.

DOA plans to apply for funding to put more charging stations in downtown Raleigh to potentially charge more state owned EVs. The same state report referenced earlier also identified areas where charging infrastructure would be most efficient.

"We're taking that data, and we're looking at state property where we can start putting that charging infrastructure in and use this federal money for that," Pfeiffer-Haynes said. "There's a lot of moving pieces. When these places were outfitted it was never imagined that we would be powering numbers of vehicles off of that. So there might have to be some infrastructure upgrades."

Lack of education

One of DOA’s strategic goals this year is to increase awareness around EVs.

Pfeiffer-Haynes said her agency is putting together an online training for state employees and the general public that will address questions around EVs.

“As someone who has taken up electric vehicles myself, I know I had a lot of entry questions,” Pfeiffer-Haynes said. “‘How am I going to manage this? How am I going to get this thing charged?’ It’s important to provide people the information so that they feel comfortable driving an electric vehicle."

Likewise, some of Sapienza's responsibilities include educating private and public entities about EVs.

"It's amazing the myths or the misunderstanding that folks have out there," Sapienza said. "How do you get people comfortable making a decision? People fear the unknown. My job is to provide people information to make an informed decision."

To help people become more familiar and comfortable with EVs, Sapienza and his team host 'ride and drive' events. People can test drive EVs and ask questions.

Sapienza said these events are somewhat successful. He's had several people come back to these events over the years with their own EVs.

"That's why I tell them ‘go test drive one.’ Whether you’re going to buy one or not, go test drive one," Sapienza said. "Have fun. Now I [don't] sell a thousand vehicles at my ride and drive event[s]. But take that win. You’re moving the ball forward."

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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