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Oregon Needs Dramatic Shift to EVs to Meet Climate Goals

The state’s transportation section is not on track to meet its aggressive climate goals of reducing emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035. By the end of 2020, the state had just 32,000 registered zero-emission vehicles.

(TNS) — David Bernal, a 36-year-old software engineer from Southeast Portland, Ore., went all electric last summer, plunking down $50,000 on a Tesla Model 3 extended range electric car and another $2,000 on a home charging set up.

His purchase was primarily driven by guilt about all his driving and its impact on climate change – enough remorse to overcome the high upfront costs and his anxiety about taking long trips and potentially running out of juice.

He’s been pleasantly surprised. Thanks to the car’s 300-mile range and Tesla’s proprietary supercharger network, he’s comfortable with road trips like the one he took to Northern California this summer to see the redwoods.

“A lot of people I talk to think an EV wouldn’t actually work for them, and for most people it’s actually more practical than they realize,” he said of electric vehicles.

If the aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals laid out by Gov. Kate Brown and state lawmakers are to become anything more than political talking points, Oregon needs a lot more people thinking like Bernal, a rapid and radical shift in how people and goods move around the state, and a cultural revolution in how lawmakers and state bureaucrats approach the problem.

Burning fossil fuels for transportation - cars, trucks, buses, planes and trains - accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, its largest single share. Apart from a blip during the great recession, they have remained level or increased for the last decade.

In short, state data shows a growing gap between its aggressive goals and reality. In the transportation sector, Oregon is not on track to reduce emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80 percent below by 2050. Not even close.

A newly developed Climate Action Plan from the Oregon Department of Transportation states that one of the most effective ways to reduce transportation emissions will be transitioning to zero emission vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen powered vehicles. It pledges to be a leader in that effort.

Advocates put it more bluntly.

“You either electrify the fleet or you don’t meet your climate goals,” said Angus Duncan, the former chair of Oregon’s Global Warming Commission.

But the state already lags well behind the steep adoption curve for the number of zero emission vehicles that ODOT forecasts will be necessary to meet its emission reduction goals. Access to Oregon’s public network of electric chargers is inequitable and anemic, well short of what studies suggest will be necessary to support even moderate levels of electrification and quell drivers’ range anxiety.

And perhaps most tellingly, state government is unlikely to keep pace with goals to electrify its own fleet of vehicles – despite having control over what to purchase and when.

Meanwhile, climate activists say the state is all but ignoring one of the biggest opportunities to transform urban transportation and reduce resulting emissions: electric bikes.

“There’s no longer a debate about whether e-bikes are transformational,” said Jonathan Maus, the editor of Bike Portland, an online biking news outlet. “It’s already here. It’s a proven concept. And it’s cheap.”

Yet in ODOT’s studies of vehicle electrification and carbon reduction, he said, “they totally failed to embrace bicycling. They didn’t even respect it enough to take it seriously. They slow walk this stuff while promoting the things they really care about.

“It’s all car, car, car, car, car car.”

Brown’s office declined to answer specific questions about Oregon’s lack of progress in curbing transportation emissions, and what, if any, accountability measures should be pursued.

But Liz Merah, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote in an email that “state agencies are making good progress on the climate action plans” submitted to the office last year.

“We know there is still more work to do to meet our climate goals, and that climate change is a crisis that must be tackled with continued urgency,” she wrote.

Falling Behind

ODOT’s Statewide Transportation Strategy, issued in March 2013, acknowledged the important role electrification would play in reducing greenhouse emissions. But its short-term implementation plan for that strategy, issued the following year, included mostly vague strategies like developing communications materials highlighting the benefits of electric vehicles, promoting EV tourism opportunities in Oregon, and participating in the West Coast Green Highway Initiative to install charging stations up and down the Interstate 5 corridor. It included no concrete goals or outcomes.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, a 2018 monitoring report acknowledged that little progress had been made, and that if current trends continued, the state’s carbon emissions from transportation would be higher in 2050, not lower – three times higher than the level targeted by the state.

Senate Bill 1044, passed by the Legislature in 2019, did set concrete goals for zero emission vehicles in the state: 50,000 in 2020, increasing to 250,000 in 2025, and the equivalent of 1.1 million in 2030 and 2.5 million by 2035. But the state is not on a path to achieve them either.

At the end of 2020, Oregon had just 32,000 registered zero emission vehicles, 35 percent short of its goal, according to the Oregon Department of Energy. And getting to the 2025 goal, it noted in a report issued earlier this year, would require more than a tenfold increase in the 4 percent market share of new vehicles that are electric.

Amanda Pietz, the administrator of ODOT’s policy, data and analysis division and former director of its Climate Office, suggests the reason the state isn’t hitting its electrification goals or seeing emissions decline is that gas has been cheap over the last decade, people have been holding onto their vehicles longer, and as the economy has recovered, they’re driving more. Meanwhile, electric cars have not yet reached price parity with those burning fossil fuels.

There is reason for optimism, she says. New and more efficient models of electric cars and trucks are arriving each year. Prices are dropping. The state has increased incentives and the feds may do the same.

ODOT’s Climate Action Plan, issued in July, adopted a more modest electrification goal than the Legislature’s – to triple the number of electric vehicles on Oregon roads by 2023, to about 120,000. But its own projections forecast that won’t happen until the end of 2027 – meaning Oregon would also badly miss the Legislature’s goal for 2025.

Critics say the electrification goals described in the Climate Action Plan are lackluster, and the agency needs to explicitly identify the combination of federal and state strategies that can plausibly achieve the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

From the standpoint of reaching the state’s emission goals, it’s important to get the electric transition going soon. ODOT data indicates that most vehicles stay in statewide registrations for 15 years.

“That means that someone who buys a non-EV today may not reach a point to purchase another vehicle until 2036,” said Jessica Reichers, technology and policy manager at the Oregon Department of Energy. “And that’s the average time, so some people will keep their cars even longer.”

As it stands, ODOT is not forecasting any decline in motor fuel sales between now and 2029. That implies no reduction in related emissions. And if that turns out to be the case, transportation emissions at the beginning of 2030 would be 75 percent higher than the linear glidepath to hit the state’s carbon reduction goal for 2035, according to Portland economist Joe Cortright.

Daniel Porter, ODOT’s chief economist, says the agency’s revenue and electric vehicle forecasts represent the agency’s most likely scenario. They are not based on what the agency wants to see happen, or on the governor’s executive order, he said, but purely on consumer patterns and historical data.

While state law and the governor’s order speak to the targets, “there’s nothing in it that says we have to meet that goal” he said. “It says we want to meet that goal, but where’s the stick to make that happen?”

There’s no stick. Few of the state’s carbon reduction policies passed to date are enforceable. The Legislature did provide a carrot, increasing incentives for purchases of new and used electric vehicles by low- and moderate-income households.

Meanwhile, the state looks like it will fall well short of a goal to electrify its own vehicle fleet used by government employees.

To spur electrification, legislators passed a bill in 2019 requiring state agencies to increase their zero-emission vehicle procurement to 25 percent of all light duty vehicle purchases and leases by 2025. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed House Bill 2027, increasing the requirement to 100 percent by 2025 to the extent they are available and capable of meeting the agency’s specific needs.

The state fleet has averaged about 7,200 light-duty vehicles over the last five years. At present there are just 42 zero emission vehicles in its light-duty fleet, and the Department of Administrative Services expects an additional 100 to 150 deployed by July 2023, for a total of less than 3 percent of the fleet. At that pace, it won’t come close to the 100 percent procurement goal, and it would take decades to replace the state fleet with electric vehicles.

There are obvious reasons. Reichers says pickups make up about a third of the state fleet. Some are used in remote areas that may require more range than electric vehicles available through 2025 may be able to provide.

Then there’s the cost. A 2020 report by the agency concluded that the biggest barriers were the cost and effort to install charging stations at state facilities, the people needed to manage the program, and the incrementally higher costs of the cars themselves.

The study said that it if the state were able to electrify the entire fleet right now – it can’t – the incremental cost of the vehicles and installing the charging infrastructure would be $200 million more than what it would pay to replace the fleet with internal combustion engine vehicles.

“The effort to electrify the state fleet will be spread out over a decade or two and we can expect to see vehicle and charging infrastructure costs to decrease over time,” the report said. “However, the estimate above is a good indication of the scale and cost the effort entails to meet the Zero Emission Vehicle policy goals for state fleets.”


Even if more Oregonians buy electric vehicles, the state is not on pace to have the necessary and convenient public charging infrastructure to support them.

Consumers and businesses are still concerned about the range of their electric vehicles, and residents of many rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, condominiums and apartments have little access to public charging. The Department of Transportation is supposed to lead the charge, increasing capacity and addressing those inequities.

In 2021, the transportation department issued a needs analysis to support the number of electric vehicles that were in the Legislature’s goals. The results were eye-popping.

It determined the state would need 3,525 public chargers to support the 50,000-vehicle goal in 2020. Today the state is 40 percent short of that number, according to the state Energy Department.

The needs analysis determined the number of chargers necessary to support 250,000 electric vehicles in 2025 – the legislature’s goal – would be nearly 17,000, including 4,411 public fast chargers. That’s 10 times the number of fast chargers in Oregon today.

Again, the state is not on track, and ODOT’s Climate Action Plan is considerably less ambitious. It aims to expand statewide electric vehicle charging infrastructure by 10 percent by the end of 2025. That would still leave the state well short of the charging network its own analysis determined the state would need to support 50,000 electric vehicles, much less the 120,000 vehicles it is targeting by the end of 2023.

Pietz, ODOT’s data and analysis manager, said the agency is not in the business of installing charging stations. Rather, it’s role is as a facilitator, she said, working with utilities and the private sector to develop a deployment strategy, providing some incentives, and in particular, to make sure there is equitable access in disadvantaged communities, in rural areas and in apartments and condos that don’t have access to home charging.

The state has a grant program for community charging. It is seeking a $21 million federal grant to support charging. The federal infrastructure bill provided $52 million for charging infrastructure in Oregon. And the Legislature passed a law earlier this year allowing utilities to invest ratepayer money in charging.

“There’s going to be a fairly significant uptick in investment in electrification within the next two to five years,” Pietz said.

ODOT has not analyzed how much it would cost to hit any of these goals. But Atlas Public Policy, a Washington DC-based group that tracks the EV market, did run the numbers for public fast chargers needed in every state.

It used different assumptions than ODOT, and concluded the state would require fewer, but much higher voltage ports that could charge cars faster. It’s still a big number: 1,624 public fast charging ports by 2025, a fourfold increase from the 432 lower voltage ports in operation here today. The firm estimated that would require an investment of $264 million by 2025, and the need would grow from there. That’s for fast chargers alone.

Chargers can be expensive to install and maintain. On top of the chargers come conduiting costs and electrical upgrades to buildings, parking lots and even the local electrical distribution system. In August, for example, the agency awarded a $4.1 million contract to upgrade and maintain Oregon’s section of the West Coast Electric Highway, a charging network along I-5 from Canada to Mexico. That expenditure will update and maintain 44 existing charging stations and add three more.

Reichers, at the Department of Energy, said the state will need to be flexible about how it establishes its charger network as the technology changes rapidly and it doesn’t want to install a lot of expensive equipment that quickly becomes obsolete.

“At the same time we don’t want to overbuild infrastructure in an attempt to future-proof it only to find we spent more money than necessary,” she said. “It’s a delicate balance.”


Steve Cheseborogh, a 65-year-old blues musician from Northeast Portland, bought an electric cargo bike last December for about $4,000. About a month later, he sold his car, and started using the bike for everything: shopping, transporting two guitars and an amplifier to and from gigs, going to a friend’s house, whatever the need.

“It just works,” he said. “People think an e-bike is a replacement for a bicycle. They don’t realize that it really replaces your car, or most of your car use.”

E-bikes are mounted with a rechargeable battery, allowing cyclists to go faster and farther with less physical effort. Compared to a car, (even an electric car) buyers save on the purchase price, fuel, parking, maintenance, insurance, registration and taxes. Moreover, they are responsible for less carbon dioxide and other forms of air pollution. They decrease congestion.

Yet cycling advocates say the state isn’t taking them seriously as an alternative form of transit, an assertion ODOT disputes.

Spokesperson Matt Noble said in an email the agency “sees bikes, electric and otherwise, are an economical, environmentally friendly and healthy way to travel. We believe giving Oregonians several options to get where they’re going is essential to a modern, multimodal transportation system, and a key strategy to lower GHG emissions from transportation.”

He points to the $255 million the Oregon Transportation Commission recently dedicated to non-highway uses, including public and active transportation for 2024-2027, and the $30 million the agency is set to receive in additional funding for bike and pedestrian projects from the federal infrastructure bill.

ODOT’s needs analysis for electrification did include electric bicycles in a broad category called micro mobility, one that includes scooters, skateboards, unicycles and more. The study said the category was expected to grow from 3 percent of urban trips in 2020 up to 25 percent in 2035. Yet it said data on micro mobility was scant.

“More information is needed before Oregon can suggest ways to facilitate greater adoption of micro mobility.”

ODOT’s Climate Action Plan promises a follow up study on barriers to micro mobility.

Maus, of Bike Portland, believes ODOT should be studying and funding some pilot projects on local bike charging infrastructure, electric bike parking, electric bike incentives and urban design as part of the state’s efforts to reduce emissions. But he believes the state is slow walking those efforts while it pursues the things it really cares about: expanding freeways for cars.

“Electric cars will solve one piece of this puzzle,” he said, “but meanwhile you see electric bike sales going up every quarter and you still don’t see them being taken seriously by these agencies. The whole process is really soaked in car money.”

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