‘The future … is going to be electric vehicles’: EV sales are small in Virginia, but a new push is on to build the market

By: John Redi Blackwell  February 26, 2021

electric car

As the owner of an electric, battery-powered automobile for seven years, Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, wants to see many more Virginians driving electric cars.

“I don’t think in my lifetime I will ever buy another gas-powered car,” said Willett, who was a co-sponsor of a package of legislation that just passed the Virginia General Assembly aimed at sparking more electric vehicle sales in the state.

Most of the time, Willett charges his Tesla S model electric car from a power outlet at his home overnight. He can drive up to 250 miles on a full battery charge. “The newer models can go farther than that,” said Willett, who has put close to 150,000 miles on the car.

When he is on a longer trip, he stops off at one of Tesla’s supercharger stations, such as the one on Brook Road in Henrico County, and charges the battery for about 15 minutes to give the car another full juice. Tesla, a California-based company, has about 30 supercharger stations across Virginia, with another 10 in development.
“In addition to wanting a safe car and a nice car, I wanted one that was environmentally friendly,” Willett said of his decision to buy an electric car. “Vehicle emissions are the number one source of [carbon dioxide] pollution in Virginia.”

It was a personal choice that Willett concedes has largely been out of reach for most Virginians for a variety of reasons, from the typically higher price of electric cars to a lack of convenient charging stations.

“When I bought my car, it was definitely not the car for everybody,” he said. “It was a higher price point. Starting out seven years ago, there were definitely some ‘ghost areas’ out there where I would struggle to find a charger.”

Though sales of electric automobiles have grown, they still represent less than 2% of overall automobile sales in Virginia and the nation.

As of 2019, out of about 8 million cars that were on Virginia’s roads, roughly 24,000 of them were electric vehicles, including 14,000 battery-electric vehicles and 10,000 plug-in hybrids.

Yet a new push is underway to put more people into battery-powered cars and transition away from gasoline-powered ones. That push is coming from automobile manufacturers and from lawmakers.
The biggest announcement came in late January from iconic U.S. automaker General Motors, which pledged to stop making gasoline and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs by 2035 and set a goal of making the vast majority of the vehicles it produces electric.

A couple of weeks later, Jaguar said its brand will be fully electric by 2025 as it phases out internal combustion engines. Its sister brand, Land Rover, also will produce its first all-electric model in 2024.

The moves depend a lot on the willingness of state and federal lawmakers to back the building of electric charging infrastructure, said George Hoffer, a transportation economist and professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“They need infrastructure help because without the infrastructure, the electric car dies, meaning they want public, electric filling stations,” he said.

More than 100 new electric automobile models are expected to be introduced to the marketplace over the next two years, Hoffer said. Many of them come from established automotive companies such as Volkswagen, while others are being introduced by upstart electric car companies such as Lucid Motors Inc., Rivian Automotive LLC, Lordstown Motors Corp. and Nikola Corp.
A majority of new electric vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were made by Tesla, which has stores in Henrico and Northern Virginia and has requested a Virginia DMV hearing to open more locations in the state.
“Tesla is what everyone is trying to emulate now, in the sense that Tesla is a vehicle that was built from the ground up to be an electric car,” Hoffer said.

“The electric car has a lot going for it, and it will eventually win,” he said. However, Hoffer also thinks there is likely to be lot of churn in the marketplace as well as changes in the technology of electric cars, so consumers should do their homework.

Hybrid model vehicles that use both gas and battery power might emerge as the most successful bet for buyers and sellers, at least for now, he said.

“My personal advice is that this is a very rapidly changing market,” he said. “You can expect a lot of failures. A lot of this [the new automobiles] is coming from people you have never heard of before. My advice to the consumer is be careful. The technology is very fluid, and the players in the industry are very fluid, and it needs infrastructure.”

Among the new entrants in the electric car market is Ford Motor Co.’s Mustang Mach-E, the company’s first fully electric crossover vehicle after it made an $11.5 billion commitment to build electric cars.

The car starts at about $40,000 before tax incentives. It can get up to 300 miles on a battery charge.

Initial sales have been good at Richmond Ford, which operates stores in Richmond, Henrico and West Point, said Ron Kody, president of the dealership. He said his company is getting about eight to 10 of the cars a month at each store and selling them within a few days.

“It says a lot about where we are going as a company and really where all car manufacturers are going,” Kody said.
Like many customers, Kody was initially skeptical about electric cars, but he sees newer models as being more viable for consumers.

“From its infancy, my view on electric cars was the concept is really good, but the very first thing the consumer had was range anxiety,” said Kody, referring to car shoppers’ concerns that electric cars could not go far on a battery charge.

“The battery storage capacity was not much, and there was not much of anything in the way of charging infrastructure,” Kody said. “As battery technology has become better, now you are talking about 300-mile ranges and you can use it as an everyday driver.”

Electric car sales are still only a small percentage of overall sales for Hyman Bros. Automobiles, whose local dealerships include Jaguar, Land Rover, Nissan, Kia, Subaru and Mitsubishi franchises.

Haywood B. “Huddy” Hyman Jr., who owns the dealerships with his two sons, said “range anxiety” has been a major barrier for customers buying electric cars.

“I think these vehicles that will be coming out in the next two or three years will be longer range, which is key,” Hyman said. “I think the pricing is going to be more reasonable going forward.”

Jaguar, a British luxury car brand that has struggled, will go fully electric by 2025.

“I am all for it,” Hyman said. “It may give us more of a competitive edge.”

About 53% of Virginians would be interested in buying an electric vehicle, according to a consumer survey conducted by Generation180, a nonprofit in Charlottesville that advocates for clean energy and electric cars.

But the group identified three major barriers for consumers: higher upfront costs for electric vehicles, a lack of electric car inventory at dealerships in the state, and limited access to electric charging stations around the state.

One of the bills that recently passed the General Assembly, House Bill 1965 carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, would help address the inventory issue by enabling the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt targets for low-emission vehicle sales in the state.

Another bill, sponsored by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, seeks to offset the costs of electric vehicles that would provide consumers who buy or lease a new or used electric vehicle with a $2,500 rebate at the time of purchase.

Buyers with an annual household income less than 300% of the federal poverty level would get an additional $2,000 rebate for a new electric vehicle and $500 for a used electric vehicle beginning in taxable year 2022.

“People often say electric vehicles are only for rich people,” said Stuart Gardner, program director for Generation180. “We wanted to make sure that the benefits would be available to all Virginians.”

The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, an influential trade group of independent automobile dealers, backed several pieces of legislation, a move that the organization’s president and CEO, Don Hall, said is controversial within the industry.

“My peers nationwide have fought against this, and we are the first trade association to really take this in a more positive light and be involved in it,” Hall said.

“The future, whether people want to agree or disagree, is going to be electric vehicles,” he said. “We took a progressive approach. My leadership decided this is what we needed at this time. We think the future, and we want to be on the right side.”

However, Hall also warned that the cost of providing rebates for electric cars and building infrastructure for charging will be far greater than what the General Assembly has budgeted. While the proposed House budget included $5 million for the rebate program, the final budget, agreed to on Thursday by budget conferees, included no funding.

“If Virginia is committed, then Virginia is going to have to put its money where its mouth is,” Hall said.

Virginia currently has about 1,520 publicly available charging plugs at the Level 2 speed of charging and 478 public plugs at the fastest Level 3 speed of charging, according to the Generation180 report.

Those charging stations support about 24,000 electric vehicles now on the roads in the state. Maryland has about 343 more plugs than Virginia, covering a much smaller geographic area.

Along with private developers of charging stations, Virginia is putting state money into building publicly accessible stations, using some of the money the state received from a $15 billion legal settlement that automaker Volkswagen agreed to in 2016 to resolve claims that it cheated on emissions tests.

Virginia is putting 15% of its share of the settlement, or about $14 million, into a contract with California-based charging station developer EVgo to open stations in the state. So far, 78 chargers at 24 locations are operational, with more in development.

The goal is to put a charging station within 30 miles of more than 90% of Virginia residents, said Chris Bast, chief deputy of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.