In the fast lane
Colorado tries to lead charge in EVs, but there are twists in the road

In the fast lane

An electric vehicle gets some juice recently at the Smiley Building. Despite Gov. Polis' attempt to put Colorado in the fast lane with adaption of EVs, there are still hurdles to overcome, such as lack of infrastructure and the state's topography and climate, which can limit battery range./File photo

Allen Best - 09/05/2019

As Colorado emerges as a leader in electric transportation, it’s grappling with unique challenges from its geography.

The state’s challenges in accelerating electrification of transportation can be understood partly in its extremes. It’s 229 miles from Crested Butte to the gleaming gold dome of the Capitol. In theory, a Chevy Bolt’s battery life has a range of 238 miles. Just enough juice, right?

However, a study by the Gunnison County Electric Association revealed challenges. Temperatures still dip to 30 below in the Rockies, despite milder winters in recent decades. And to get to Denver requires crossing three mountain passes, including the Continental Divide. All  these factors reveal why Colorado is planning 33 fast-charging stations along highways in the state.

“Once those get built, it’s a very different picture,” Mike McBride, chief executive of Gunnison County Electric, said. Colorado began briskly installing charging stations under former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Newly elected Gov. Jared Polis has taken steps to accelerate the pace. That direction, along with laws adopted this year, lead some to declare that Colorado will soon be among the nation’s leaders in vehicle electrification.

“After this legislative season, I think Colorado has to be considered a leader,” Travis Madsen, of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said. “We have some work to do to implement the policies, but I expect that the next couple of years will be transformative.”

Last year, Colorado was fifth in the nation in electric vehicle sales at about 2.6 percent, according to EVAdoption .com. California led the nation at 7.8 percent, but Madsen expects Colorado’s sales to increase.

Punching the pedal on EVs

Polis has worked hard to speed the adoption of electric vehicles. In his first executive order as governor last January, he reallocated the $68.7 million Colorado will get as its share of the Volkswagen emissions settlement. Under Hickenlooper, the state splintered the money, with some going to school buses and garbage trucks fueled by propane or compressed natural gas. Now, all of Colorado’s VW money will go to electric transportation: half to transit buses; a third to school buses and medium and heavy-duty trucks; and 15 percent to light-duty electric vehicle charging stations.

Polis also directed the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to review adoption of a zero-emission vehicle standard based on California’s. A compromise with major auto manufacturers and auto dealers will, if approved, result in auto dealers expanding their offerings of electric vehicles.

Legislators have also pushed forward, creating the framework for the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, to begin building charging infrastructure. They also created a longer downhill coast for tax credits for new electric vehicle purchases. The $5,000 credit had been scheduled to expire in 2020 but will now drop incrementally through 2025.

Group buys, including those in partnerships with utilities and dealerships, have also knocked down prices. State and federal tax credits along with discounts and rebates offered by Xcel and auto dealerships have ratcheted down the price of Nissan Leafs on the Front Range by $19,500.

Debby King, of Denver, owns a hybrid but had no plans to buy an all-electric car until the incentives persuaded her. She ended up paying less than $12,000 for a Nissan Leaf. “It was really hard to pass up. I’m not sure that all the infrastructure is quite as robust as I want it to be, but I’m going to find out,” she said. “If it’s not, I can always rent a (gas-engine) car.”

Ambitious goal, aggressive policy

A state plan released in January 2018 identified a goal of having 940,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Given Colorado’s aggressive policies, that may be a modest figure. The Colorado Energy Office says the plan will be updated this year.

Transportation has become the fulcrum for Colorado’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Legislators adopted sweeping goals this year, but Madsen pointed out if Colorado hopes to attain them, it must more rapidly accelerate decarbonization of its transportation sector. “It’s pretty clear where the electric sector is going, and the transportation sector needs a lot more attention,” he said.

For people in Crested Butte, buying most models of electric cars remains a stretch. During winter, driving to Denver requires climbing 3,609 feet up Monarch Pass before descending about the same elevation to Poncha Springs. That’s not a problem, as the regenerative braking technology standard on electric vehicles restores lost energy. But what if traffic gets diverted because of avalanche control work?

Cold temperatures also limit the range of electric vehicles. The study by Gunnison County Electric found cold weather sapped batteries. From 1 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, batteries performed at 80 percent of the EPA estimate and 37 percent of the estimate when the temperature dropped to 8 degrees below zero.

High-speed charging stations should reassure motorists. One such station was installed in February in Buena Vista, adding up to 125 miles of range within 30 minutes. But McBride points out that the Bolt typically gets about 55 percent of the nameplate charging rate. The lesson, again, is that electric vehicle owners need to be cautious.

Gunnison County Electric has since launched a similar study using a Tesla Model 3. “If potential EV users know what they can expect, they won’t be caught off guard,” McBride said. “They will also be able to choose a vehicle with enough range to meet their needs.”

Bryan Hannegan, chief executive of Holy Cross Energy, said the co-op has been working in the Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail areas to deploy two fast-charging stations. One of them, at Eagle, went online this month. The co-op is also offering 100 percent rebates to members who install Level 2 chargers at their homes or businesses.

Fleets making the leap

Transit agencies across Colorado are also investing in energy-saving infrastructure. Among them is the state’s second-largest transit agency, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which has a fleet of more than 100 buses and 22 vans. This month, it added eight 40-foot New Flyer electric buses, which can carry 60 passengers and their skis during peak times.

Dan Blankenship, chief executive of RFTA, says the buses will be used in and around Aspen, where the agency runs 350 trips a day. One place the new electric buses won’t go is the Maroon Bells – RFTA isn’t sure how well the buses can handle the elevation.

“Every technology is going to present some challenges,” Blankenship said, and often the challenges aren’t clear until the buses are deployed. It was that way with natural gas-powered buses and hybrids.

Blankenship expects the climate to pose challenges, as well. Heating, defrosting and steep grades will all draw down the batteries. And, as he adds more electric buses, Blankenship has to think about charging infrastructure.

On the plus side, the electric buses will be far quieter than the diesel or hybrids, no small factor in a town that prizes environmental quality. Too, the buses will have a lower carbon footprint.

But what about residents living in mountain towns? Is it time to buy an electric vehicle?

“There’s no way I would buy a new gas-fueled car right now,” Madsen said. His declaration is driven by a passionate belief in the need to transition energy sources. But he’s also convinced the cost savings alone justify electric vehicles. “It seems like a win-win: save money, prevent pollution and protect health.”

But, given all the new electric vehicles expected to be available in the next few years, he’d want to lease one first, get familiar with how it works, and then buy. Electric vehicles are expected to achieve parity with internal combustion engines by a round 2025, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

As for those who want trucks, they’re coming, too. One option: a Rivian pickup, which was displayed at the X Games in Aspen last January as well as the Outdoor Retailer show this summer in Denver. The developer, an MIT graduate, believes the model can go 400 miles without recharging. It will be pricey though: the base model, which can go 230 miles on a charge – same as a Bolt – will be $69,000 before tax credits.