Ford F-150 Lightning

Ford already has 100,000 preorders for its all-electric F-150 Lightning.

For electric vehicle boosters, the traffic report is good and getting better.

The Biden administration is pushing a $174 billion package to supercharge the EV market, from production to rebates to chargers.

Led by California, more and more states are adopting policies and spending tax dollars to spur transportation electrification. In the Northwest and elsewhere, electrifying the transportation sector is becoming increasingly prominent in electric utility plans. Not to be left out, cities, automakers and others are jumping in.

The upbeat mood at Forth Mobility's Roadmap Conference, held June 14-16, reflected this stream of good news for EV advocates. Pledges of huge public spending programs notwithstanding, panelists and speakers seemed most excited about Ford's F-150 Lightning, the all-electric version of America's best-selling vehicle in 2020.

Considering that industry data shows pickup sales are strongest in traditionally conservative states, Ford's announcement this month that it's received 100,000 preorders since unveiling its plans for the truck in mid-May looks to EV advocates like more evidence of a profound market shift.

"It feels like everyone's pulling together in a way that has never happened before and at scale that's never happened before," Forth Mobility CEO Jeff Allen told Clearing Up. "I never take anything for granted, but it does feel increasingly irreversible," he added. "The next five years will be critical."

President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion in rebates for EV sales and installing 500,000 charging stations.

"The president's plan aims to make EVs an affordable option, not a luxury item," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Roadmap's virtual attendees. The administration "envisions a future where an EV owner can plan a cross-country road trip without having to give a second thought about where they're going to charge," he said.

The vision targets both the industrial and commercial sectors, and includes a contract awarded in February to electrify the U.S. Postal Service's fleet in 10 years.

In the meantime, state and local policymakers like the City of Portland's Ingrid Fish are waiting for more details from Washington, D.C. She oversees transportation decarbonization policy for Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

"We don't want to put time and effort into projects that duplicate what the feds do," she said in an interview.

Even a panel with three high-level federal officials yielded few details.

That session sharply contrasted with the majority of sessions, which were focused on very specific real-world issues, such as electrifying school bus fleets, working with car dealers to boost EV sales and building transportation electrification programs in rural communities.

The private sector is not investing to put EV chargers in rural areas or poorer neighborhoods. Those areas have largely relied on programs focused on increasing social and economic equity.

"Now it's seen as a luxury to have charging infrastructure, but there will be a time when it is a necessity, not a luxury," Fish said.

Transportation electrification and social and economic equity often intersect in policymaking now. Fish spends plenty of time working to spur EV adoption in Portland, she said, as well as trying to spread the benefits of the city's transportation systems to low-income neighborhoods and other traditionally marginalized communities.

Installing chargers at apartment buildings is key to making it easy to drive an EV, but considerable hurdles exist, several panelists noted.

Roughly two-thirds of California's 135,000 apartment complexes are old enough that they would require substantial electric upgrades to put in chargers, said John Kalb, a consultant who works with property owners and developers interested in installing EV chargers.

It's not clear that there is much incentive for owners of those apartment buildings with antiquated wiring to pay for the upgrades needed to put in chargers.

On-site chargers are not a priority for most would-be tenants, he said during a panel.

Behavior is central to spurring EV adoption, several panelists said.

A carrot offered by a utility to a ratepayer can go further depending on how it is paid out, said Chad Saliba, the manager of business development at Mississauga, Ontario-based Geotab Energy, where he has worked with utilities on designing time-of-use rates.

"People see money differently depending on where it is," he said. "They love seeing $20 in a PayPal account. It feels like money," unlike a $20 credit on a monthly power bill.

Likewise, people see cars differently, which is another factor that affects EV adoption.

"Truth be told, I used to think these EVs before Tesla were kind of dorky," Mike Calise, president of the Americas for the Australian-based charging station manufacturer Tritium, said during a session on using human nature to aid transportation electrification.

"I had a hard time with those [early] vehicles; they just didn't deliver on the [social] status," he said. "Now, all EVs are starting to become cool."

Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen certainly hope so. Automakers increasingly are betting their futures—or at least a big part of the financial future—on EVs. GM announced June 16 that it plans to build two new battery factories, in addition to two already under construction, to supply its EV production. In all, the company plans to spend $35 billion by 2025 on expanding its electric and autonomous vehicle lineup.

"Every time an automaker converts a plant or builds a new one to make EVs, that is a big sunk cost," Forth's Allen said. "That's not something they're going to reverse in a hurry."

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Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.