Electric vehicle use is rising. But who should be at wheel during the transition?

Electric vehicle use is rising. But who should be at wheel during the transition?
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Source: Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

With new laws that aim to reduce carbon output from power plants now in effect, Virginia officials are laying the groundwork to tackle a much more complicated source of emissions: vehicles.

Almost half of the commonwealth’s carbon emissions can be traced back to transportation — trucks, airplanes and, of course, cars. But unlike the electric grid, which is controlled by a few big players, vehicular travel is intertwined with the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. That presents policymakers seeking to slow climate change with a daunting task: persuade the ranks of citizens to change their individual behaviors or attempt to fundamentally remake the contours of a geographically sprawling society that for decades has been reluctant to invest in mass transit. 

Electrification has proved a popular way to thread that needle. For drivers, electric cars can be swapped for gasoline-powered vehicles fairly seamlessly. Advancements in battery technology are driving prices steadily downward. And the prospect of a growing economic sector is particularly attractive at a time of looming recession. 

Most importantly, if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, they work.

“An electric vehicle in Virginia is something like 75 percent cleaner than a gasoline-powered car,” said Chris Bast, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “Even in the very coal-heavy areas of the South, an electric vehicle, plugging in, is better than running on gasoline for the climate.”

More drivers are making the switch: In 2017, according to the Virginia Energy Plan, there were about 11,000 electric vehicles in Virginia; at the end of June 2020, that number had risen to more than 17,000, according to data provided to the Mercury by the Department of Motor Vehicles. A study commissioned by Dominion Energy, the state’s biggest utility, found the number of non-hybrid EVs in the utility’s territory alone could reach 26,000 by 2025 and 169,000 by 2030. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has estimated that by 2040, almost half of all vehicle sales in Virginia will be electric. 

But electrification itself can’t just be plugged into the existing system, and as Virginia officials prepare for an expected influx in electric vehicles, they will have to wrestle with who will take the wheel in the transition: utilities like Dominion and Appalachian Power Company, a competitive market of private companies and investors or some combination of both.

“What we’ve seen with respect to broadband is that competition has done a great job where it is profitable, and we have none in the rural, less dense areas,” said Judge Judith Jagdmann of the State Corporation Commission in an exchange with Sierra Club attorney Nathaniel Shoaff during a July 8 hearing on electric vehicle deployment. “Where do you see the line between competitive charging and perhaps utility charging?”

That question, Shoaff responded, “gets to a fundamental part of what states all across the country are wrestling with, which is how to balance that utility participation.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.