January 28, 2023

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Electric vehicles with mass appeal drive surge in Colorado sales

Liz and Chip Verrill’s first electric vehicle was a Chevrolet Volt they bought a decade ago. The plug-in hybrid sedan came with a backup gas-powered engine, giving them peace of mind since the battery lasted only about 50 miles on a charge.

But things have changed, and in the last year the Ken Caryl couple has converted to battery-only: a Nissan Leaf for his commutes and a Kia EV6, a small sport-utility vehicle, for her. On road trips across Colorado in the EV6, Liz Verrill says they have found plenty of places in mountain towns for quick “sips” of electric juice.

“I was a little reluctant to go all-electric because I had massive range anxiety,” she said. “I’ve gotten over that, and anybody can.” She offered a caveat: “Just don’t go to Wyoming,” where public fast-chargers — which can restore most of a charge in 15 or 20 minutes — are harder to find.

The Verrills’ EV6 is part of a fresh generation of electric vehicles that comes closer to meeting the demands of Colorado drivers: More new models offer all-wheel drive, heavy towing capacity or driving ranges of hundreds of miles on a single charge, about 280 miles in their case. And next year, automakers are set to release even more fully electric pickup trucks and larger SUVs.

In a state where 86% of passenger vehicle purchases this year have been in the “light truck” segment, including SUVs and vans, state leaders are hoping to capitalize on the broader spectrum available. The wider array of vehicles available, with more automakers joining early innovator Tesla in the market, is already having an impact.

Cars head westbound along I-70 drive between Central Park Boulevard and Quebec Street in Denver on August 18, 2022. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Battery-powered vehicles’ market share surged to 9.6% of new sales in the state during the first nine months of the year, according to the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association’s third-quarter report. That reflects 60% growth over the same period in 2021, coming at a time when overall auto sales declined.

The Colorado Energy Office and the Colorado Department of Transportation this month launched a website and education campaign, called EV CO, that aims to persuade more drivers that the time is right to switch to electric.

Or at least to start considering it — since now may not be an ideal time to buy. Electric vehicle manufacturing is caught in the same supply-chain delays and shortages facing the whole auto industry, often requiring buyers to wait several months for the delivery of reserved vehicles.

Still, state officials, auto industry insiders and environmental advocates are hopeful that a tipping point for EV sales may be at hand soon, both in Colorado and nationally.

“A very resounding yes to that,” said Tim Jackson, president and CEO of the auto dealers’ association, who helped shape the new state campaign.

This year’s boom has been powered by battery-only models, though a small portion were made up of plug-in hybrids. Together, those two categories now exceed sales of older-style hybrids, the kind that still switch back and forth between a gas engine and a smaller, self-charging battery 22 years after the Toyota Prius debuted in the United States.

Yet the state remains in the early-adoption phase of the technology. Just under 68,000 electric vehicles are currently registered in Colorado, or 1.4% of passenger vehicles, according to state data.

The state needs the transition to accelerate if it’s going to meet the goal set out in the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap of getting 940,000 battery-powered or clean-technology cars and trucks on the road by 2030, or nearly 20% of current registrations.

State officials are optimistic, noting that it’s typical for new technologies to take off among the wider public after a period of slow adoption. As it stands, Colorado has the fifth-strongest market share in the nation for plug-in electric vehicles this year, the auto dealers association report says.

At the top were California, where nearly 1 in 5 new vehicles sold was an electric or plug-in hybrid, followed by Washington, Oregon and Nevada; those three states ranged from 10.1% to 11.1%, compared to Colorado’s 9.6%.

As a reason for optimism, Jackson cited this year’s release of the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning, the lead entrant in what’s shaping up to be a war to win over pickup fans with powerful EV models. The 2022 version is rated for 230 miles per charge, and in the next year or so, Chevrolet’s Silverado EV and GMC’s Sierra EV Denali trucks are expected to offer a range of up to 400 miles.

Those models are likely to play well in Colorado, where five of this year’s 15 top-selling new models are pickup trucks, with Ford F-series models at No. 1, according to the association’s report. The rest are all SUVs or smaller crossovers.

A 2022 Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S model electric vehicle pulls into a service bay to then be placed on the sales floor at Emich Volkswagen on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
A 2022 Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S model electric vehicle pulls into a service bay to then be placed on the sales floor at Emich Volkswagen on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Costs and other hurdles remain, but ownership is easier than ever

While electric vehicle ownership is easier than it’s ever been, Liz Verrill and other EV owners say there are still challenges to navigate, from figuring out an at-home charging setup to planning longer trips.

Then there’s the upfront cost: The purchase price of EVs tends to be higher than for a comparable vehicle with an internal combustion engine, though maintenance and fueling costs — recharges cost less than gas — are markedly lower in the long run.

Some of the most promising new models, at least in terms of Colorado drivers’ interest, are on the steep end, with the F-150’s 2023 model starting at nearly $52,000 and rising quickly as more features are added.

But state and federal tax credits can offset a big chunk of the cost, with $2,500 available to Colorado residents for purchases of light-duty EVs (and $1,500 for leases), plus up to $7,500 through a federal program. However, new restrictions approved this year by Congress have limited which models qualify for the federal credit by requiring final assembly in North America.

A state official behind the $550,000 CO EV campaign pointed out that some EV models are much more affordable than the Ford truck. The 2023 Chevy Bolt EUV, a small SUV with a single-charge range nearing 250 miles, starts at $27,200.

“We have more automobile manufacturers putting out additional models that can really fit into any Colorado lifestyle and (into) a range of different budgets,” said Carrie Atiyeh, a senior program manager with the Colorado Energy Office. “And so that’s something we really want to highlight with this campaign.”

There are also charging options to consider.

The Verrills spent several hundred dollars to upgrade to a “Level 2” charging outlet at home when they still had their Chevy Volt, providing a quicker charge. Several Colorado electric utilities, including Xcel Energy-Colorado, offer rebates for wiring upgrades to install Level 2 chargers, which typically can recharge a battery overnight.

But such an upgrade isn’t required, especially if an EV will be used for shorter commutes. Atiyeh pointed out that most people have easy options at home, though recharging may take much longer. Apartment dwellers and other renters may be at the mercy of what their landlords provide.

“Yes, you could upgrade and install a faster Level 2 charger,” she said. “But if you’re driving an average of 30 (or) 40 miles a day and you have access to a three-prong outlet, you can do that at home.”

When they hit the road for longer trips, EV owners typically rely on smartphone apps such as PlugShare and Chargeway. They provide frequently updated charging locations and trip calculators that take into account the dampening effect of cold weather on a battery’s range — a concern to be mindful of during Colorado winters.

Liz Verrill, 61, initially had hoped to take a road trip to Canada in her new EV6. But then she and her husband looked at charging availability in the Dakotas and other states along the way.

“We realized that’s just not going to happen yet,” she said.

A 2022 Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S model electric vehicle charges on the lot at Emich Volkswagen on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
A 2022 Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S model electric vehicle charges on the lot at Emich Volkswagen on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Charging network is growing, but gaps remain

Verrill praised Colorado’s still-growing charging network, but she worried about it keeping up as EV ownership grows.

Atiyeh and CDOT officials said the state is doing its best to stay on top of the challenge, but it’s a big one. The state invested in its network earlier than some states subsidizing some of the nearly 4,400 publicly available ports on public and private property across the state, including 715 fast-charge stations. The latter take about 20 minutes to recharge a vehicle to about 80% of capacity.

“It’s not quite as fast as pulling into a gas pump,” Jackson said. “But it doesn’t take much longer. If you need a bathroom break or a coffee break, it isn’t that big a difference.”

Atiyeh says Colorado plans to spend $25 million over the next year to fill in more gaps, which are most glaring on the Eastern Plains. The state also is set to receive tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to install chargers along key highway corridors, building toward a goal of knitting together a national charging system.

Aside from a better charging network, it also will take years to realize another goal: Making electric vehicles truly green.

For now, a recharge could be drawing electricity produced by a pollution-spewing power plant. In Colorado, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources accounted for 35% of total electricity generation last year — but that means most still comes from coal- and gas-fired power plants. Xcel, the state’s largest electric utility, is still eight years from its goal of generating 80% of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

In the near term, though, the state’s focus is on getting more people to consider switching to an electric vehicle — and that’s where the new campaign comes in, with an aim of dispelling myths and filling information gaps.

A Colorado Energy Office market-research study in 2020 found that 63% of Coloradans who aren’t EV owners planned to purchase their first one within 10 years. Others were less sure, and fully a quarter of those surveyed anticipated never buying one.

Concerns about driving range and upfront costs topped the list of prevalent concerns, the 2020 report says — and Jackson, from the dealers’ association, says range anxiety is still a factor for many.

But he worries about another problem: limited availability, with dealer lots mostly empty and vehicles on back-order amid the supply-chain delays.