Back in 2014, state officials calculated the number of gas-burning cars they would need to get off the roads and replace with cleaner, greener options to meet climate goals.
By 2020, they said, electric cars in the state needed to total more than 169,000. By 2025, that number had to rise to 300,000.
But reality has fallen wildly short of the dream.
As of last month, just 51,431 electric passenger vehicles were registered in Massachusetts, less than a quarter of the target. Only about 31,000 of those were fully electric. The remainder, plug-in hybrids, burn gas once they deplete their batteries.
It’s a critical failure on the path to a clean future, climate advocates and legislators say. The promising policies put in place — a rebate program to encourage consumers to go electric and a plan to install plentiful charging ports across the state — were insufficient, underfunded, and allowed to languish. The result is that the road from here to where we need to be will be longer and steeper than ever intended.
“The state is not trying hard enough,” said Senator Mike Barrett, lead author of the state’s landmark climate law. “Nobody has chosen to own this.”
Converting large numbers of the state’s 4.3 million gas cars to electric is one of Massachusetts’ most urgent climate tasks as it stares at the 2030 deadline for slashing emissions by half from 1990 levels, which was set by the Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy law. Cars account for about a fifth of all carbon emissions in the state, and advocates, legislators, and other experts say that if Massachusetts doesn’t quickly address its problems, including by improving mass transit and discouraging driving altogether, it may not reach the targets set for the end of the decade.
“It has to be a World War II effort,” said Susan Buchan, director of energy projects at E4TheFuture, a Framingham clean energy policy consulting firm. “There has to be mobilization and real leadership at the government level.”
State officials say they have been hampered by obstacles beyond their control, including supply chain problems that have made electric vehicles harder to come by and more costly, and a pandemic that upended consumer habits for more than two years. They acknowledged that the electric vehicle effort is badly behind schedule but remain optimistic.
“We think the curve is one of those typical sort of clean energy curves where it starts off slow, and then all of a sudden, it goes up,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides. “But we have our work cut out for us to make sure it does go up.”
Key to the state’s effort is a rebate program that critics say is flawed. Rebates have proven in other states to be a highly effective motivator, in part because they can bring the price of electric cars close to what a gas vehicle would cost. But the Massachusetts rebate of $2,500 doesn’t close that gap, experts said, even when coupled with the rebate offered by the federal government for some vehicles.
As a result, the program largely attracts wealthier car buyers and shuts out the much larger segment of the population that can’t now afford an electric vehicle, experts said. A 2021 analysis by StreetsBlog, a clean transit news site, found that since the program began in 2014, 79 percent of its rebates went to residents who lived in ZIP codes where incomes were above the state’s median.
By contrast, successful programs in other states have attracted large numbers of buyers by taking steps to make electric veh
icles more affordable to poorer residents. Oregon, for example, which has one of the highest rates of electric vehicle ownership in the country, offers larger rebates to low- and moderate-income residents, up to $7,500. It also gives rebates for used electric cars, whose prices tend to be much lower than new ones. Massachusetts does neither. And while Massachusetts buyers must wait until after they’ve paid for their cars to apply for a rebate, states including New Jersey and New York allow the rebate to come immediately off the price.
“A lot of people aren’t going to be able to have that upfront capital,” said Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Point-of-purchase is a key piece.”
Making such changes would dramatically increase the number of rebates the state hands out, experts said. And of course, that would require more money for a program that already has “struggled to have the funding that it needs on a consistent basis,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a consumer advocacy organization.
It has struggled in part because it has been funded, not from the state budget or some other large, reliable source, but from smaller funds that tend to vary from year to year, experts said. One source of money is fees paid by power plants when they exceed emissions caps, which rise when energy demand is high and ebb when it’s low. Another source is the penalties utilities pay when they miss targets for renewable energy, which also varies from year to year.
Adding to that uncertainty is the whim of the Legislature, which must vote to approve allocations to the rebate program when it runs low on cash. In January 2019, after a spike in demand for rebates, the program was forced to cut costs by reducing rebates to $1,500. When money finally ran out at the end of September that year, the Legislature failed to act quickly enough, and for three months the program was shuttered completely. Electric vehicle sales dropped more than 51 percent from December 2018 to January 2019, according to sales data from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a car company trade group.
“Stopping and starting a program is not good for consumer confidence,” said Kyle Murray, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.
Since January 2020, the program has been back online, but its funding remains unstable and it will require a vote from the Legislature by late June to continue operating.
Last week, lawmakers in the Senate unveiled a sweeping climate bill that proposes funding the program with $100 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, increasing rebates to $3,500, with an additional $1,000 for buyers trading in a gas-powered vehicle, and allowing buyers to collect their rebate at the point of sale. But those offerings will have to survive the reconciliation process with a House bill before they could potentially become law.
Meanwhile, equally behind schedule is another essential building of an electric vehicle future: charging stations. They need to be sufficiently ubiquitous to overcome drivers’ fears of being stranded away from home with an empty battery.
To meet the 2025 goal of 300,000 electric vehicles on the road, the state will need 21,000 chargers for people to use when they are away from their homes, according to an estimate by National Grid, an electric utility that has a state-approved program to connect chargers to the grid.
There are now fewer than 5,000.
That won’t nearly get it done. To boost those numbers, the state is relying on private businesses and employers and large institutions like universities to pay to install them.
But so far, relatively few have responded. They see no urgent need, what with the lack of electric cars on the road, said Jake Navarro, director of National Grid’s Clean Transportation program.
“It’s a chicken or egg problem,” he said.
For its part, the state offers rebates on charger installation costs as an enticement. But those programs, like the ones offering rebates for cars, have been largely funded by finite sources, such as $11.25 million the state received from a 2017 settlement of the Volkswagen diesel emissions fraud case.
The state did not respond to a request for interviews with officials familiar with those programs or their funding. But according to the state, a rebate program that covers the entire $50,000 for the fastest chargers, which can charge a car battery in a few hours, stopped taking applications in March 2021. And the online application site for another rebate program, for a slower, much less expensive charger type, warns that applications will be accepted on a “first-come, first-served basis until all available funding is spent.”
Whatever the limitations those programs may face, experts said it is critical to the state’s mission to find incentives that work. “We need to get a million cars on the road and that’s going to take businesses saying it’s worth it for us to do this,” said Buchan, of E4TheFuture.
Later this year, the state Department of Public Utilities is set to decide whether to allow the state’s largest electric utilities to use funds from a small surcharge on customers’ bills to pay for a massive build-out of charging infrastructure. Under terms of that program, the utilities would lay wiring for about 13,000 public and workplace chargers, with a focus on getting more chargers installed in environmental justice communities, and provide charger hookups for thousands more at condo and apartment complexes.
In theory, the build out of so much electrical infrastructure could be a huge boost to the state’s pursuit of its goals, setting the stage for thousands of businesses and employers to pay for the final step of putting chargers in.
But the state will have to find a way to convince them to do it, and there has been little stomach in the Legislature for finding new, more robust funding for incentives, said state Senator Jamie Eldridge, a former vice chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change who is pushing for more ambitious climate commitments. He said that despite the Legislature’s nation-leading work on passing ambitious climate laws, it has generally failed when it comes to putting money behind the promises.
“There hasn’t been a full realization that unless we fully fund these programs, then the goals we set out aren’t going to be achieved,” he said.
The Senate bill proposed last week would require the state to install charging stations at all service plazas on the Massachusetts Turnpike, as well as spend $50 million of federal funds to create a Charging Infrastructure Council fund, to plan for EV charging.
Ben Downing, the former senate chairperson of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy who briefly was a candidate to succeed Charlie Baker as governor, said it may be time to take more drastic steps, by passing a law requiring businesses to invest in chargers.
“We have spent a lot of time on the incentive side of the program, and we are going to have to look at the mandate side of it,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”
The state’s electric car effort also suffers because no one person or agency has sole responsibility for making it successful, Downing said. At least three departments have some piece of the effort.
“There’s no clarity there on what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “The lack of clear ownership in state government creates a world in which it’s incredibly difficult to communicate a clear value proposition to the consumer. Everyone walks out of the meeting saying, ‘You got it, you got it.’ And then nothing happens.”