Electric vehicle infrastructure

Gov. Jared Polis, seated, presents the pen he used to sign a bill that will urge utilities to build more charging stations for electric vehicles to Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, as co-sponsors of the bill, Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, and Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, look on.

Colorado’s entry into the arena of zero emission vehicle (ZEV) regulation began in earnest this week as the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission holding four days of hearings on a proposed amendment to last year’s low emission vehicle standards.

The ZEV regulations are a mandate from Gov. Jared Polis, whose first act as governor was to sign an executive order requiring the commission to come up with a rule to establish a ZEV program and activate it by Oct. 30.

The goal, Polis wrote in the order, is for 940,000 electric vehicles to be on Colorado roads by 2030, as well as to reduce greenhouse gases generated by transportation emissions.

The low emission vehicle (LEV) standards, the precursor to this week’s hearings, never actually went into place. The Air Quality Control Commission adopted them last year, following an executive order by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, but the the commission was promptly sued by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association (CADA), a lawsuit that’s still working its way through the courts.

This week, the commission has been listening to comments from those on both sides of the issue: the auto dealers, electric vehicle giant TESLA and rural Coloradans who say electric vehicles aren’t practical.

What’s under consideration was announced on July 29, known as a joint alternative regulatory proposal. The alternative proposal, which is considered more voluntary than a mandate, is endorsed by the Colorado Department of Transportation, the state’s energy office, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers.

Their proposal, which has the blessing of the Polis administration, ensures “the availability of ZEV [zero emission vehicle] options for Colorado consumers beginning in January 2020, while also ensuring a smooth transition into the program for automakers,” according to the commission's website.

Still, the proposal is drawing opposition from those who say that Colorado isn’t California and that consumers just aren’t buying electric vehicles. In 2017, electric vehicles made up just 1.57% of total light vehicle sales in the state. In 2018, that had increased to 2.61%.

A CADA representative said during the hearings this week that consumers just aren’t interested in buying electric vehicles, and that SUVs and trucks had made up almost 80% of vehicle sales in Colorado so far in 2019.

Then there’s the issue of reliability. Dianna Orf, representing the Northwest Council of Governments, told the commission Thursday that electric vehicles aren’t practical in her part of the state due to a lack of charging stations.

On the Western Slope, those stations are primarily located along Interstate 70 west of Denver and along a few state highways. On Colorado’s Eastern Plains, you can count the number of charging stations on one hand, all but two along the interstates.

The proposal being considered by the commission would affect passenger vehicles beginning for model year 2023, and is based on California’s ZEV program.

That’s the problem, said representatives of Freedom to Drive (FTD), a coalition of organizations that includes motor carriers, agricultural associations, Mesa County and the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, and the Colorado chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

Using California standards doesn’t make sense for Colorado, according to FTD. Why cede authority to an out-of-state commission that has no accountability in Colorado, they asked.

The mandate isn’t appropriate for Colorado for several reasons, according to FTD:

  • Coloradans drive more SUVs, minivans and trucks. That’s borne out by the auto dealer association, which said in 2019 almost 80% of vehicle sales have been for trucks and SUVs.
  • Zero emission vehicles won’t work in many parts of the state, particularly those areas that lack charging stations. The alliance pointed out that the proposal would cover battery electric vehicles powered solely by a battery, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that operate on battery power for 20 to 45 miles before a gas engine takes over for another 300 to 600 miles, and hydrogen-fuel cell electric vehicle.

Tony Gagliardi, state director for Colorado NFIB, told the commission that Coloradans simply cannot afford electric vehicles. The policy would disproportionately put the cost of the regulation on Colorado’s businesses and rural populations, “while benefiting urban, upper middle-class citizens who can both afford zero emission vehicles and have access to the electric charging infrastructure currently available in urban areas."

In addition, he said, those vehicles don’t have the towing power, space or size, nor the range required for extensive service visits.

Freedom to Drive has estimated that Coloradans will pay an additional $500 per vehicle to cover the regulatory costs, that gas will go up by 11 cents per gallon, and that the new regulations will also drive up utility costs by 7%.

Electric vehicles aren’t selling, claimed Jeff Carlson, a Ford dealer in Glenwood Springs. His dealership leaped into the electric vehicle movement in 2016, but took a substantial loss on those vehicles because no one wanted them, he told the commission. Not one sold in the 400 days those vehicles sat on the lot. So far in 2019, more than 600 vehicles have sold in his market area, which includes Aspen and Vail, and only five were electric vehicles, he noted.

Lafayette Mayor Jamie Harkins, speaking on behalf of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, said that the standards "will save money for Colorado families and businesses across the state, help clean the air in our communities, and give Colorado consumers many more electric vehicle options than they have now. This coalition of 27 local governments around the state strongly supports the proposal...we are very sensitive to the urban-rural divide and want to ensure that every part of Colorado benefits from the expansion of EVs and consumers of every kind have access to EV models that serve their needs."

Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr added that mountain communities need options. County departments vary in their usage of motor vehicles, he said, including rugged terrain for remote project management, building inspections, meetings, and site visits that often require 4-wheel drive vehicles and trucks. 

Colorado has limited availability for electric vehicles that can handle those uses, Scherr said. "ZEV standards would provide the necessary signal to provide more of these options to market with likely lower purchase price to consumers.  This would allow Eagle County to purchase more EVs and convert its fleet faster, saving taxpayers more dollars as a result and helping us to reach our community’s carbon reduction goals."

As of press time, testimony from interested parties was still ongoing.

The commission has not yet discussed nor voted on the alternative proposal, and that is expected sometime later Thursday or Friday.

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