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Accelerating warming, intense precipitation, rising sea levels — these are just a few of the signs of climate change that are happening in Maine and around the globe. What are citizens, businesses, state agencies and communities doing to cope with it and to try to reduce its future effects? That's the focus of new year-long series on MPBN. "Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change" will explore what steps are underway, both large and small, and what challenges lie ahead.This series is made possible by the Limulus Fund.

Aided By Volkswagen Settlement, Electric Vehicle Adoption Poised For Growth In New England

Fred Bever
Maine Public
ReVision Energy's Barry Woods charges up his company car in Brunswick.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, make up a tiny fraction of the cars sold in New England. But new state policies — and a big cash infusion from the settlement of Volkswagen’s pollution scandal — could speed the building of electric vehicle charging stations and help push the regional market for EVs to new levels.

This story is the latest installment in our occasional series “Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change.”

Environmentalists see the switch from combustion-engines to electricity-driven cars as a powerful tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Lewiston resident Bill Hensley says he bought an all-electric Nissan Leaf this summer because of the cool technology.

“I guess it goes in that order: cool factor, savings and then saving the planet,” he says.

Hensley was at a hearing in Portland this week on how the state should spend its $21 million share of compensation that Volkswagen is paying as part of a settlement for the company’s scheme to bypass emission regulations. All-in, the New England states will receive more than $200 million, and up to 15 percent of that will be available to build networks of public EV charging stations.

Hensley says the electricity to fuel his car costs less than half of what he would pay for gas. When, that is, he can get to a charging station, which can get pretty scarce north of Portland. He says “range anxiety” is a hurdle in the effort to get more people to buy all-electric plug-in cars such as the Leaf or Chevrolet’s Bolt — cars that are also known as zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs.

“If we are going to get people interested throughout the state we need some of these places that traditionally don’t even think of electric vehicles to start thinking electric, and that’s going to get everybody on board,” Hensley says.

Gov. Paul LePage, often seen as an enemy of carbon-reduction efforts, is on board. His energy director, Steven McGrath, says the state and the EV-friendly Province of Quebec are close to finalizing a plan to close gaps in charging-station coverage, particularly along Route 201 between southern Canada and northern Maine.

Credit energy.gov

(Click here to find the cost of fueling an electric vehicle in other states.)

“We want somebody to figure out where to site the charging stations, figure out how to fix prices for folks who want to charge on the charging stations, to estimate how many cars may likely be coming down that corridor — sort of a comprehensive look at that puzzle,” he says.

High-speed, public-use charging stations capable of directly filling a battery to the brim in half an hour can cost many tens of thousands of dollars to install, although slower-charging units cost much less.

It’s not clear exactly how far Maine’s $3 million in VW charging-station money may go, or how many stations other New England states may be able to install. Environmentalists are urging them to use the maximum allowed.

But the private sector is charging ahead. At Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick, which opened this summer, Barry Woods checks on the installation of four new charging units.

“Three of them are a Tesla connector version and one of them is a universal charger,” he says.

Woods directs EV work at ReVision Energy, which started out as a Portland-based solar installation company but is now branching out to the EV world, with offices in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Woods says installations at businesses such as Flight Deck and, soon, L.L.Bean in Freeport, can give businesses a leg up with the plug-in car crowd, who choose destinations based in part on access to charging stations.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
ReVision Energy's Barry Woods charges up his company car in Brunswick.

“For the host site they get to be on a number of different websites that provide plug-in drivers location of charging availability,” Woods says. “So they get some cross-marketing bump from both Tesla, as well as there’s a more generic site called Plug Share.”

Woods is bullish on the future of EVs in the region, where sales rates have been rising by double digits annually.

Most of the New England states, including Maine, are part of an agreement that will, come January, require car makers to include a certain percentage of plug-ins in their sales fleet. And the goal ramps up to more than a million sold in the Northeast within seven years.

But it is a long way from here to there. While some 25,000 ZEVs were sold to New England drivers since 2011, that’s not even a drop in the bucket of 5 million cars on the region’s roads.

Adam Lee, chairman of the board at Lee Auto Malls and an active player in state environmental organizations, says while the technology should make sense for many Maine drivers, he’s so far been disappointed by sales.

“We sell 10,000 cars a year and we’re the No. 1 Leaf dealer in the state. We sell 20 a year. We sell probably 50 used Leafs. Even at 50 out of 10,000 cars it’s a very, very small number,” he says.

(Click here for interactive state-by-state ZEV sales data.)

But Lee does agree with Woods and other EV evangelists that a tipping point is near. They say as battery technology becomes cheaper, more robust and able to a hold a charge longer, the financial savings of going electric will become more appealing to thrifty Yankee car buyers.

Lee says a minimum range of 200 miles per charge is likely the breaking point. Several models new this year are already reaching that mark.

For disclosure, Adam Lee is on Maine Public’s board of trustees.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.