Colorado hangs hopes on electric vehicles to combat climate change
A decade ago when electric vehicles first appeared on Colorado car lots, buyers typically were green, the environmentalist hue, motivated to save children and other living things.
Auto dealer Sean Tynan recalled a couple in their 50s, professors, inspecting a Nissan Leaf 31 times over two months. They measured it, even laid under it — peering up pensively to verify it wouldn’t pollute — before converting, Tynan said.
“I’ve never had another customer who came in and looked at a vehicle more than five times,” he said.
Shifting out of a gas-powered car to an electric vehicle — or EV — was then, as now, the most consequential action a person could take to combat climate warming, because car exhaust from burning fossil fuels is the biggest source of heat-trapping pollution that throws the planet’s thermostat haywire.
A mass shift hasn’t happened fast enough to stop intensifying megafires, heat waves, droughts and melting Arctic ice. But Colorado leaders are pushing for increased EV adoption with a focus on basic economics. And automakers, from General Motors to Jaguar, have started to pivot.
Now more than ever, electric vehicles appear likely to transform transportation: silencing traffic, reducing foul fumes along roadways, pulling more electricity from grids, turning garages into late-night charging stations.
A couple months ago, Tynan and his sales teams noticed more Front Range car shoppers who weren’t initially committed to EVs gravitating toward them in showrooms and working the math on tax credits, long-term savings and promotions. His dealership in Aurora sold a record 87 Leafs during December, two-thirds to these economically-driven “non EV intenders,” under a lease deal requiring payment of less than $100 a month.
Two parents dropped in with their twin 17-year-old daughters, learned that a state tax credit was about to shrink from $4,000 to $2,500, and snapped up a pair of Leafs, saying the colors didn’t matter. The parents calculated they’d pay less than what they were spending on smartphones, and the girls wouldn’t need gas money.
“EVs are coming,” Tynan said. “Automakers have invested billions and they’re going to continue to do that. They know more and more customers are looking for EVs.”
Colorado officials are counting on a mass shift of nearly 1 million drivers from gas to electric for the state to achieve required reductions in greenhouse gas air pollution. The state’s latest air pollution inventory shows 27% of the heat-trapping pollution within Colorado comes from vehicles burning gas.
State planners project at least 940,000 EVs on roads before 2030, relying on a 2025 tipping point when battery improvements are expected to bring price parity with gas-combustion cars, Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said.
“Over its lifetime, an EV will save you money. We’re seeing an incredible tipping point with electric utilities, and we’re going to see the same thing with electric vehicles,” Toor said. “We’re really counting on very wide adoption of EVs.”
A state rule requiring dealers to offer more EVs kicks in next year. Yet the shift lags.
State records show 3.6% of new vehicles sold are EVs or plug-in hybrids, ahead of the national average but behind California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Colorado had 33,654 EVs on the road this month, data shows, compared with more than 5 million gas-powered vehicles.
The lag, after a decade of waiting for EVs to catch on, has frustrated climate activists. Recent polls have found 70% of Coloradans support action to protect the environment and contain climate warming.
The problem is that, when even the most motivated EV shoppers scan car lots, they often cannot find the rides they want at prices they can pay.
“I’d like to make the switch sooner rather than later” but it must be an all-wheel-drive EV, “something that handles Colorado roads well,” priced comparably with a low-mileage combustion-engine car, said Jen Clanahan, director of the Mountain Mamas climate action group, who was looking to swap her family Subaru.
“Up-front affordability is the key,” she said.
Colorado officials have demanded more from dealers.
“We are supply-constrained,” Toor said. “But as the automakers make it clear that the future is electric, then the entire supply chain, including the dealerships, increasingly will see this is the new reality they’re working with.”
Elsewhere, governments are pushing harder than in Colorado to force a faster shift.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom in September issued an order declaring no vehicles with internal combustion engines can be sold in the state after 2035. A dozen or so national governments — including those in Britain, Germany, India, Israel, Norway and Sweden — have committed, over oil industry objections, to phase out combustion-engine vehicles by 2030.
Colorado auto dealers contend market forces alone will suffice.
They point to the appeal of Ford F150 pickups starting at $28,940, compared with EVs priced as high as $80,000 and battery charging challenges. An EV with 500-mile range, Tynan said, would spur sales.
“Governments around the world are pushing consumers to buy EVs and what is lacking at this moment is consumer pull,” Colorado Auto Dealers Association president Tim Jackson said. “We need less government push and more consumer pull.”