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Electric cars offer ‘guilt-free driving’ and aid the climate. So why doesn’t Pennsylvania have more?

Though they're cheaper to run, don't require maintenance like oil changes, and help fight climate change, Pennsylvania lags in adoption of electric cars. The state is hoping to incentivize consumers to consider going electric.

Meenal Raval at her Mount Airy row home with a plug-in connector for her electric car. Pennsylvania lags in electric vehicle use, even though the state made goals this year to incentivize use.
Meenal Raval at her Mount Airy row home with a plug-in connector for her electric car. Pennsylvania lags in electric vehicle use, even though the state made goals this year to incentivize use.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When Ilya Knizhnik installed a car charging station on his West Philadelphia street in 2016, his family was the only one on the block planning to use an electric vehicle.

But curious neighbors soon converted to electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Now, about five households share the charger, he said. Two nearby blocks also have charging stations.

“It’s one of the best options to promote electric cars, because people see it,” said Knizhnik, a 36-year-old IT manager who drives a fully electric Tesla Model 3. “It’s people putting in chargers for the neighbors and others to share.… It’s very much a sense of community.”

Knizhnik is one of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have switched to electric cars for the environmental and financial benefits. It costs his family about six or seven dollars in electricity to drive their car 300 miles, he said, and they aren’t spewing carbon emissions from a tailpipe.

Over the last decade, as the threat of climate change has sharpened, hybrid and all-electric cars have become cheaper, their batteries have become longer-lasting, public charging stations have become more common, and consumer purchases of them have increased. Federal and state incentives — Pennsylvania offers up to $1,500 in rebates to such car buyers — also help.

Still, both in national comparisons and by its own admission, the state lags when it comes to the number of electric vehicles on its roads.

With about 7,700 electric cars registered in 2018, according to the Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania is behind New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. California leads the nation by far, with nearly 180,000 registered electric vehicles — the state has about 23 times more cars than Pennsylvania, though its population is just over three times as large.

The trend may be even more stark in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the most populous corner of the state. Here, about 5,000 of 2.4 million passenger vehicles on the region’s roads were plug-in, electric, or hybrid as of November 2017, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which has studied electric vehicle use.

“Part of it is an educational component," said Tom Schuster, a Johnstown resident who works on clean energy and climate policy for the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group. And, he said, "there are some structural challenges — we need more fast-charging infrastructure.”

‘Guilt-free driving’

Replacing gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles is a key part of states’ strategies to reduce carbon emissions enough to slow climate change.

Thanks to transportation and fossil fuel-based energy production, Pennsylvania is responsible for a disproportionate 0.5% of global carbon emissions. The transportation sector is the single biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the second-largest in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s 2019 Climate Action Plan, which lays out an array of actions to reduce the state’s emissions, includes incentivizing and supporting electric car adoption, and in February, the state put out what it called an electric vehicle road map for increasing use.

And obstacles that once might have discouraged car buyers have started to disappear. Most electric vehicles now travel at least 100 miles before needing to be charged, said Robert Graff, whose office oversees energy and climate-change initiatives at the regional planning commission. Within two or three years, the price of a new electric vehicle should be comparable to a gas-powered vehicle’s, he predicted. Plus, more used cars are coming on the market.

Electric car owners say they may pay more up-front, but electric vehicles save them money in the long run.

“No regular maintenance — no oil change, no spark plugs, no muffler, no catalytic converter, and no trips to the gas station,” said Meenal Raval, 57, a Mount Airy resident who switched to electric 3½ years ago and drives a leased Nissan Leaf. Plus, she added, it means “guilt-free driving.”

Advocates say the issue needs more than word-of-mouth endorsements from drivers. Among their goals: better statewide infrastructure, buy-in from electric utilities, and more rebate programs. Pennsylvania also has not adopted the targets for sales of electric vehicles that other states have signed onto, meaning fewer models are available for consumers here.

Pennsylvania handed out $3.7 million in rebates to 2,389 vehicle owners in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the DEP said. It expanded its Alternative Fuel Vehicle rebate program to include more eligible vehicles, and now provides $1,000 to $1,500 in rebates for a used or new vehicle purchase. Rebates can be applied for up to six months after purchase.

This year, the state handed out almost double what it had projected, indicating a spike in interest.

“We’re pleased to see that the number of individuals who are interested in purchasing an electric vehicle is increasing,” said Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The state hopes to offer more incentives, such as installing charging stations at some state parks, and promoting the benefits with ride-and-drive events, she said. Through another state initiative, more than 160 charging projects have been approved for $3.2 million in funding.

In addition, Gov. Tom Wolf has directed the state government to replace 25% of its cars, about 500 vehicles, with electric and plug-in hybrid cars by 2025, and to replace diesel-powered vehicles blamed for nitrogen-oxide emissions.

‘The way of the future’

One state program funds alternative fuel vehicles for school districts, municipal authorities, corporations, and other public entities. (SEPTA put 25 electric buses in service this summer and has 252 hybrid buses in operation, though it has not committed to going fully electric.)

Haverford Township installed two charging stations — one for public use ― and purchased its first electric vehicle in July. The car is being used by parking enforcement employees. Using rebate and incentive money from the state and Peco, the township paid about $11,000 for the stations, said Assistant Township Manager Aimee Cuthbertson.

“It’s so much more cleaner for the environment, obviously, and we just wanted to do our part and … be an example for other municipalities,” she said. “This is the way of the future.”

Haverford Township plans to buy a second car next year and hopes to install another charging station elsewhere in town, she said.

The state legislature also could take steps to accelerate, encourage and expand electric vehicle use.

One Senate bill would require the state to develop infrastructure frameworks for metropolitan areas; establish a goal of increasing transportation electrification in Pennsylvania by at least 50% by 2030; and direct electric utilities to support the development of infrastructure.

A different bill, however, proposes an annual fee of $250 on non-hybrid electric car owners to make up for not paying the gas tax, which goes to maintain roads and bridges. The Sierra Club’s Schuster acknowledged that state transportation funding is needed but said a fee could discourage people from converting to electric.

The bill also highlights one issue with electric cars: They don’t reduce congestion and wear on roads.

“Electric vehicles are better than internal combustion vehicles, but they don’t solve all the problems of clean transportation,” said Graff, the planning commission manager. “We have to make sure we also spend efforts on sidewalks and bike lanes and last-mile scooters and pedestrians and transit.”

With others, Knizhnik and Raval recently formed a Facebook group called the Philly EV Club, aiming to connect Philadelphia’s electric car drivers and better advocate for legislative or governmental changes. He said the City of Philadelphia should be doing more to install infrastructure for the cars and promote their use.

He never plans to buy a fully gasoline-powered car again.

“For my kids, who have been plugging in our car for nearly four years,” Knizhnik said, “the idea of putting gas into a car is very strange.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the electric car fee currently proposed in a state house bill.