Will electric vehicles in Oregon finally go mainstream?
To take a 200-mile meander in the new Chevy Bolt, cruising first down the I-5 West Coast Electric Highway and then out to the coastal town of Cannon Beach, is to believe that Oregon’s electric vehicle mobility revolution has arrived.
Maybe. Sort of.
The ride on a mild February afternoon was smooth and quiet, the “range anxiety” short lived, and the (pre-selected) charging station easy to use and completely free, courtesy of the Courtyard in Cannon Beach hotel.
My trip confirmed why Portland was named 2016’s “most friendly” city for electric vehicles, according to Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and why the state of Oregon has one of the highest percentages of electric car ownership (1.5%).
Oregon also sports one of the nation’s best car-charging station infrastructures, especially up and down the I-5 corridor, with dozens of medium-fast or Level 2 car chargers.
Some of them are available free of charge, plus a generous handful of faster DC chargers.
There are some warning lights on this electrified dashboard, however. Mobility itself is in a period of intense disruption, with electrification and autonomous vehicles creating new opportunity, lots of hype and the perennial “Who will pay?” question.
Oregon, which started strong in EV innovation, is lacking some investment and follow-through and, perhaps most important, the splashy branding needed for mobility electrification to flourish and spur sustainable economic development.
There’s also the specter of the new Trump Administration, which appears determined to roll back federal fuel standards and perhaps even California’s ZEV (zero emissions vehicle) mandate that helped pushed EVs to their market position today.
As a small state, Oregon was not destined for a big electric consumer car manufacturing base or large purchasing market.
What we do have, and what may be in danger of withering, is a cluster of EV supporting players. These include Brammo, in electric battery tech and drivetrains; LEKTRO, maker of electric airplane tows; Hyster-Yale, in electric lift trucks; and Arcimoto’s electric town cars.
Then there is Drive Oregon, the local electric vehicle advocacy group that is getting ready to transform itself from state to regional power player in EVs and smart transport with a name change and brand expansion.
Yet if the different EV players — local consumers, companies, supporting nonprofits and the state — don’t bolster existing strengths with more investment, innovation and enthusiasm, Oregon will watch as other metro areas and states win the electric mobility competition.
We still have a leadership position worth defending, argues Jeff Allen, executive director of Drive Oregon. “But the field is getting more crowded, and we need to up our game.”
Plugged in: EVs get their 30-minute fix on Electric Avenue in downtown Portland. Photo by | Jason Kaplan
Back in 2013, Portland State University’s Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC) defined an EV cluster in Oregon comprised of 54 unique companies.
NERC’s report expressed optimism about the unique supply and demand situation in Oregon: a population ready to try and buy EV technology, and a ‘horizontal’ business picture of innovator companies.
Fast-forward four years. On the demand side, Oregonians haven’t taken to EVs as quickly as anticipated. In fact, today’s cheap gas is letting us driving more miles in our old, less efficient vehicles.
After a six-year period of mostly declining vehicle miles traveled, our VMT is now at its highest level ever: more than 36 billion miles in 2016.
A report from the state Global Warming Commission says we aren’t reducing carbon dioxide equivalent emissions fast enough to meet our 2020 goal, a reduction to 51 million tons from todays’ 63 million tons.
Nationally the EV market grew 37% between November 2015 and November 2016. The best growth was in Utah and Nevada and metro areas including Las Vegas, Kansas City and the Raleigh/Durham region of North Carolina, according to charging company ChargePoint.
This is partly due to these areas starting from scratch and partially a more mature and rich panoply of available vehicles.
Oregon is still ahead of many states but not as far compared to California or, say, Norway, where 37% of vehicles sold are electric. As a state, Oregon was No. 9 in EVs in operation.
Meanwhile, Portland barely snuck into the top 10 metro areas for the number of EVs in operation (No. 10). In spite of last year’s “most friendly” award, the Rose City was considered No. 8 in EV potential growth.
EV proponents agree Oregon needs to buy more — not just electric cars, bikes and in-town vehicles for commuting consumers, but also electric buses for transit, and electric light-duty trucks for commerce and deliveries.
Currently there isn’t much organized, active resistance to the idea of EVs or electrification — but the absence of a negative doesn’t add up to a positive.
Rather, the lack of organized opposition is due to the fact that the dominant paradigm, internal combustion vehicles is still, well, overwhelmingly dominant.
Then again, the base price for the 2017 Tesla is $79,000; if there is opposition to electric vehicles, it’s the sense that EVs are expensive and elitist, although they are cheaper to operate and maintain.
The recent release in Oregon of the relatively inexpensive Chevy Bolt, priced starting at a mere $37,500, is being heralded as the “iPhone of EVs” that many are hoping will intensify adoption.
The mid-sized four-door hatchback boasts 238 miles of posted range on a single full charge.
And as I discovered, the Bolt is a joy to drive. Its longer range, nearly 100 miles more than most current competing EVs — except for the more expensive Tesla — is its key advantage.
During my jaunt to Cannon Beach it was blissfully quiet on the stretches of I-5, where the buzz of an internal combustion engine can drown out NPR. The vehicle hugged the curves of 101 like a sportscar and climbed the rises of 26 like a champ.
It also was a conversation starter; the group of adopters of all-electric vehicles is still small, although over 600 Bolts found new owners in December 2016.
As Oregon representative Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene), a passionate Tesla driver since 2012, puts it, “I’m concentrating on adoption of EVs. To me EVs are interconnected with climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and taking care of our grandchildren and the next generation.”
Drive Oregon’s Allen agrees on the way forward. “In many ways, selling EVs is simply a ‘getting butts in seats challenge,'” he says.
Once people drive EVs, they tend to give them a thumb’s up. “But it hasn’t been anyone’s specific job to sell electric transportation as a product or a class. Car companies see electric drive is the future, and yet they don’t want to sell against themselves. The EV cost-per-sale is very high.”
Because the auto industry won’t take leadership in pushing electrification (and in fact are passively working against it by their attempts to rollback fuel-efficiency targets), Allen and Barnhart agreed that “cash on the hood” subsidies — beyond the $7,500 maximum federal tax credit — are critical.
Drive Oregon is promoting several bills in the current session.
But as the pressure increases for the Legislature to come up with a new transportation bill, there is the chance that Republican opposition to EVs will firm up, similar to the partisan hardening that occurred in last session’s work on the contentious clean fuels bill and gas tax proposal.
There is a bit of a silver lining in the $14.7 billion in the settlement VW reached with the U.S. government last year over its diesel vehicles emissions scam.
VW will dedicate $2 billion over 10 years in EV investments in 15 metro areas in the U.S., and the Portland metro area is slated to get a portion of that investment. This means some new fast chargers for our EV infrastructure as well as public education campaigns.
And in Klamath Falls, eight new ‘Superchargers’ for Tesla vehicles herald the introduction of Tesla’s model for the masses, the anticipated Model 3 vehicle, priced even a bit lower than the Bolt, later this year.
A quick aside: If the number of Teslas spotted in the Pearl District is any indication, the EV appears to be the new Prius, at least for many local tech CEOS.
“When it is an open road, it’s hard to imagine a better car,” says Vacasa CEO Eric Breon, who commutes via Tesla from his home in Vancouver, Washington. “If I do end up in gridlock, the autopilot makes it much more bearable. It makes it hard to switch back to our minivan.”
But back to mainstream adoption: Another possibility to pump up EV participation and infrastructure, is the controversial clean energy bill passed last year that phased out coal plants and boosted the state’s renewable portfolio standard.
The new law also directed the two biggest utilities, Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, to submit plans for further jump-starting EVs.
As PGE’s Brian Spak explains, utilities already saw the possible benefits of electrification; creating the new energy plan helped them see how EVs might lower utility rates.
“Our biggest learning was the realization that every new EV that is added to our service area provides benefits for all ratepayers with its downward pressure on rates,” Spak says.
How? Most EV drivers will charge at home during off-peak nighttime hours, increasing a utility’s revenue without necessitating building new capacity.
That allows the utility to spread its fixed costs over more hours in the day, putting downward pressure on rates.
This makes PGE and Pacific Power more amenable to investing in EV charging stations in their service areas and electrifying their own fleets.
For example, PGE plans to spend $600,000 annually on consumer outreach, including education on selling EVs to auto salespeople; the utility will also pay for and maintain EV bus chargers, allowing TriMet to use federal grant money earmarked for buses and infrastructure to instead purchase an extra bus.
Another PGE plan is to build six new Electric Avenue sites similar to the one in downtown Portland, which features multiple chargers including DC fast chargers. Not to be outdone, Pacific Power says it will add seven charging stations around Portland and incentivize more DC fast chargers by adjusting the rates station owners/operators pay.
All these plans need Public Utility Commission approval, and they don’t mean the utilities won’t still seek rate increases. PGE for one has already announced it will ask for rate hikes for 2018. Barnhart blames that more on the new Boardman gas plant than the relatively small investments in electrification.
Some members of Oregon’s EV cluster find this forward movement inspiring.
Mark Frohnmayer, president and founder of Arcimoto, which is building the two-seater “everyday” electric trike called SRK, says he feels “very bullish about Oregon’s adoption of EVs.”
Eugene-based Arcimoto has worked for nine years on eight iterations of the SRK design, and Frohnmayer says vehicle production should start this month, with first deliveries of the $12,000 trike in summer 2017.
“As options come into the marketplace, I think Oregon will continue to be an early adopter — as a state we embrace things that are more efficient and sustainable.”
He adds that he finds plenty of I-5 corridor companies offering what Arcimoto needs for advanced manufacturing, from sheet metal fabrication to die stamping.
But CEO Craig Bramscher of Medford-based Brammo Motors isn’t quite as sanguine.
Brammo sold its electric motorcycle division to Polaris in 2015 and continued developing specialty electric drivetrain and battery technology. Bramscher moved to Medford for quality of life. Now he’s eyeing New York state as the best place to grow his current company.
“We had good support for motorcycles,” he says. But now, “New York state is working to bring energy storage companies into the state and putting $1.5 billion behind those words.”
By contrast, “in Southern Oregon it’s hard to have a great manufacturing business and to get the money and talent; there’s that great sucking sound to the south of us.” Bramscher is investing in robots for robotic electric battery assembly and says the incentives for this kind of advanced manufacturing are better elsewhere.
Henry Balensifer, spokesperson for LEKTRO, which makes electric “towbarless” aircraft tugs in Warrenton, doesn’t believe the state sufficiently supports maturing manufacturing. As a rural, coastal manufacturer, LEKTRO, hasn’t “felt the love” from the state, he says.
Even Allen at Drive Oregon, a passionate booster, admits that the levers for economic development need to be pressed a little harder.
“If we are saying that advanced transportation is a cluster where we can compete, let’s build on that,” Allen says. “We may have a lack of follow-through. I think that’s a fair argument.”
Follow-through would mean organizations like Business Oregon making more connections between EV mobility businesses and the rest of the state’s smart tech and transport companies, and supporting with more networking, training and technical support.
This is exactly what Allen says he is mustering with Drive Oregon’s rebranding. The organization’s new name, “Forth,” to be formally unveiled later this month, is intended to highlight its expanded territory (starting with Washington), as well as innovation in new and more efficient ways of getting around.
Later this spring and summer Allen’s team will use a $1 million federal grant to open a showcase store in Portland and small pop-up facilities all over the state, where Oregonians can try out many or most of the 30 all-electric and hybrid electric vehicles available.
Ashley Horvat, former EV car czar at the Oregon Department of Transportation and now vice president of strategic initiatives at Plug Share of Venice, California, says it is key for Oregon not to sell the idea of electrification simply through a car like the Bolt, or even the upcoming Tesla Model 3.
Horvat isn’t convinced Drive Oregon should be expected to fill the really big shoes branding electrification as a concept currently requires. Someone needs to sell a bigger narrative, she says. Part of that narrative is about market advantage; if we don’t move forward, another state, or country will beat us to the punch.
The New York Times reported last month that sales of electric vehicles climbed more than 70% last year in China, which now has the world’s biggest market for electric cars, with about 630,000 units on the road.
As the Times reported, Canada, France and Sweden each had growth in electric vehicle sales of 50% to 70% in 2016 compared with the year before.
But another part of the narrative, Horvat suggests, involves old-fashioned storytelling. Oregon’s EV cluster needs to deliver a compelling tale about how electric transport can supercharge the Oregon version of the American dream: solid economic progress, a healthy green place to live and smart, unfettered access to the great outdoors.
Correction appended: The dashboard image in this article has been changed to reflect the correct number of EVs on the road in Oregon.
A version of this article appears in the April 2017 issue of Oregon Business.