Polis and an Electric Vehicle

Gov. Jared Polis prepares to sign an electric vehicle bill with Rep. Matt Gray of Westminster and Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge on May 31, 2019.

When the world comes back, Colorado’s fast track into electric vehicles will get a restart. A slowing economy works against it, for sure, but there's still a lot going for it.

The Centennial state has been in hot pursuit of California on electrification for a couple of years. When Democrats took control of the General Assembly last year and green-minded Jared Polis took up residency in the governor’s office, reducing air pollution and shifting to renewable sources of energy became a mission as much as a goal.

That got more complicated on March 31 when President Trump rolled back an Obama administration standard that would have pushed the U.S. auto fleet to an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Trump reduced it to 40 mpg.

“This rule supports our economy, and the safety of American families,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The second part of Trump’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule blocks states from setting vehicle emissions standards. Zing, Colorado!

Whether Trump gets a second term or not, the litigation will outlive his presidency.

Lawmakers have delivered bills for Polis to sign aimed at bringing electric vehicles to the market, while making sure EV owners have accommodations, including access to charging stations, protected parking and tax breaks for the still relatively high-priced vehicles that have their limits outside the Front Range.

After the economy has cooled, we will see if the engine on electric vehicles is still warm for consumers and policymakers.

Sticker shock has been a hurdle, along with charging stations and the range of the vehicles without juice.

The median price for new gas-powered vehicles is about $36,000 compared to more than $55,000 for electric vehicles, before owners can recoup the difference in fuel savings. 

Cox Automative said last year that only 10% of EV drivers are younger than 35. Car makers are trimming the prices and rolling out more affordable models.

However, we’ve come a long way in 14 years since Colorado-borne “South Park” provided the satirical “Smug Alert!” featured a status symbol and a lifestyle, “a Toyonda Pious.”

Colorado highway director Shoshana Lew has watched the migration to electrification as a federal and state transportation official.

General Motors just showcased a host of more affordable electric vehicles. “These are not investments they can easily turn back on after years and years of research and development,” Lew said.

But if the overall car demand is restrained for a couple of years, the pent up demand for newer vehicles could crash ashore at the same time as price and accessibility for EVS, the highway boss fathomed.

That’s why work on charging stations and getting more electric vehicles in the market still matters, she said. The state has no plans to change course, Lew said.

Auto makers seemed intent to stay the course on lean-running vehicles, as well. 

“The greatest opportunity for environmental benefits will happen as we look to longer-term policies beyond 2026,” John Bozzella, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the technology trade group for automakers, said after Trump’s announcement. “Automakers need a policy environment that drives not only fuel economy improvements, but that also supports the infrastructure, market and other conditions necessary for the transformation of light-duty vehicles to a lower- and net-zero carbon future.”

He's talking to leaders such as Lew and Polis.

Colorado’s push on charging stations is unchanged, Lew said. As the move toward electrification grows, this state will invest in the future, not the past.

The stakes are high, and not just for the environment and politics.

About 40% of electric vehicles — about 23,000 in 2018 — were sold in Denver and Boulder, Tim Jackson, the president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, told me.

Vehicle sales, across the board, however, were hammered in March, down anywhere from 40% to 75%.

New and used auto sales and services make up up to 24% of total sales taxes in Colorado, said Jackson, so about a buck out of every $5 that primarily powers local communities.

“Right now our dealers can only sell remote or online and that leaves dealership showrooms empty and idled,” Jackson said in an email. “That may change when the state sees the sales tax dollars drying up.”

Aaron Kressig, transportation electrification manager for the think tank Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, pointed to millions of dollars destined for Colorado in economic stimulus money.

“Electric vehicle charging stations create jobs,” he said. “They require construction, utility line workers, they require engineers and they power the economy. I hope to see those forward-thinking clean energy investments, like EV infrastructure being a part of whatever stimulus once we enter a period of economic recovery.”

Kressig called Trump’s decision a step backward on air quality in the West and more electric vehicles are crucial, more than ever, to reduce emissions and the effects of climate change.

He thinks the market will slow down in the short term, but the trajectory of electric vehicles, as well as electric-powered transit, remains on course.

“It’s going to slow, no doubt, but long-term, it’s the direction where we’re going to keep going,” Kressig told me.

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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