By Grant Stringer/Oregon Capital Chronicle
More Oregonians than ever are buying electric cars and the state is poised to see a major influx, in part because of friendly state and federal policies, according to a new report by the Oregon Department of Energy.
Almost 70,000 electric vehicles are registered in Oregon, up from 38,000 in 2021, analysts wrote in a report to the Oregon Legislature that was released last week. The agency says Oregon will probably surpass the state’s goal to have 90% of vehicle sales be electric by 2035, which would help decarbonize the state’s transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Jessica Reichers, energy technology and policy manager at the Oregon Department of Energy, told the Capital Chronicle that Oregon is on the cusp of a big shift to electric cars. Nationally, Oregon is emerging as a hub: Sales of electric vehicles in Oregon were second only to California in the first quarter of 2023, the report said. Regionally, Oregon has collaborated with California, Washington and British Columbia, Canada for a network of fast charging stations dubbed the West Coast Electric Highway.
The report also notes that falling prices and more consumer choices for electric vehicles — including a growing market for used models — are helping speed up the pace of adoption.
However, only 2% of registered vehicles in Oregon are electric. Few dealerships sell electric cars in central and eastern Oregon, and it can still be hard to find a charge outside of urban centers or away from Interstate 5 and Interstate 84, Reichers said.
“That’s a challenging thing when you’re driving long distance,” she said.
Heavier-duty vehicles, like buses and semi trucks, remain expensive and hard to charge. Transitioning those vehicles will be more difficult but critical for Oregon climate goals, the report said.
State lawmakers passed goals for electric vehicle adoption in 2019. Agencies are using a combination of requirements and incentives to get more electric cars on the road.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality requires that 35% of new cars, trucks and SUVs sold in Oregon have no tailpipe emissions by 2026, with stricter rules after that. Oregon also debuted two wildly-popular rebate programs to help buyers cover the cost of an electric car. One, the Charge Ahead EV program, gave low-income Oregonians who purchased electric vehicles up to $5,000. But both programs ran out of money because of “overwhelming demand.” They will reopen next year when more funding is available, the agency says.
Stuart Green, policy manager for the Portland-based nonprofit Forth, said the Charge Ahead rebate made a big splash: More than 40% of zero-emission vehicle registrations were supported by the program, Green said.
Need for incentives
He said pausing the rebate programs will slow the state’s progress and called for more incentives, especially for low-income residents and rural communities that “have more barriers to electrification and are less likely to be served by private investments.”
A federal incentive of up to $7,500 is still available for moderate- and low-income drivers.
Reichers said Oregon’s biggest challenge is a lack of chargers. Plug-in electric cars can be charged with a standard 110-volt outlet. But a faster charge requires a Level 2 charger that comes with a price tag of up to $1,200, Reichers said.
The Oregon Department of Transportation plans to invest $100 million, with about half from federal funds, in charging networks. Its Community Charging Rebates Program has committed up to $7 million to help install Level 2 chargers in rural swaths of Oregon. Reichers also said private charging companies including Tesla are beginning to collaborate more, which will open more options for drivers.
However, Green said, it’s far from certain whether Oregon will meet its zero-emission vehicle targets. A policy reversal from the federal government, supply chain glitches or legal challenges to government policy “could easily change what is possible in Oregon,” Green said.
Electric engines produce no tailpipe emissions and are far more climate-friendly than internal combustion engines. But electric car production still emits carbon,particularly during the assembly of lithium ion batteries. Reichers noted that mining for lithium and other necessary minerals comes with its own environmental and human rights concerns.
To meet climate goals, state agencies require fuel suppliers to sell progressively cleaner products and invest in multi-modal transit systems that take more vehicles off the road, whether they’re electric or not.
This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.