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Why Haven’t More Connecticut Towns Adopted EV Fleets?

The state hopes to have as many as 150,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, but it still has a long way to go. For some localities, switching municipal vehicles to EVs can signify to residents that the town is serious about reducing emissions.

(TNS) — In Newtown, Conn., the local health department uses a Chevrolet Bolt to get to restaurant inspections. In New Haven, the mayor zips around the city in a Nissan LEAF. In Middletown, students are ferried to school on an electric bus. And in Westport, the police department is eagerly awaiting the delivery of its second Tesla.

Motivated by public interest in zero-emission vehicles and potential long-term cost savings, a small but growing number of Connecticut towns and cities are incorporating electric vehicles into their municipal fleets. Flush with federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, some municipalities say that now is the perfect time to make deep investments in electric-powered vehicles.

“Aside from the fact that it helps to reduce the carbon footprint, it’s good for the next generation coming along, it’s good for the environment — those are all plus things,” said Fred Hurley, Newtown’s director of public works. “But if you want to get very parochial about it, they don’t need servicing like other vehicles do. Their operating costs are much lower.”

But despite the shift toward electric vehicles in some towns and cities, others are far from giving up their dependency on gasoline. The vast majority of Connecticut municipalities have not purchased electric vehicles, whether due to concern about costs, doubts about their practicality or simply because they haven’t gotten around to it.

As of July, there were about 17,200 registered electric vehicles in Connecticut, a small percentage of the state’s 3 million gas-powered cars. And Connecticut remains a long way off from its goal of putting 125,000 to 150,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025.

Proponents of electric vehicles say there’s no time to waste. According to a September report released by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut is not on track to meet targets set by the General Assembly for substantially reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles are one way to reduce emissions, alongside broader legislative efforts, advocates say.

Town fleets, of course, make up only a small fraction of the cars on the road and a small fraction of Connecticut’s total carbon emissions. But to Barry Kresch, president of the EV Club of CT, the purchase of electric vehicles is “a signal that the town is serious about reducing its emissions profile.”

“It creates visibility for EVs in a community,” Kresch said. “[People] are seeing them in action. They’re seeing that they’re practical to use, that real people are doing real things with them, that it’s not some exotic thing.”

‘Now We’re Getting There’

At the Westport police department, Foti Koskinas has long had his eye on electric vehicles. In 2007, when he was in charge of the department’s fleet, he oversaw the purchase of two first-generation Priuses. Now, as police chief, he is steadily working toward transitioning his fleet to electric power.

“Early on, I had to convince them,” Koskinas said of town leadership. “It very soon became collaborative. And soon after followed, ‘How do we keep going?’”

For Koskinas, the benefits of an electric fleet are undeniable. The department’s Tesla Model 3, purchased in 2019, is used for routine traffic patrols. Powering the car over the course of its first 15,000 miles cost less than $700 — a far cry from the gasoline tab a traditional cruiser would run up.

Additionally, the Tesla’s brakes and wheels last much longer than typical police cruisers and the vehicle does not need oil changes, which drives down maintenance costs even further. Overall, the department estimates that the Tesla Model 3 will deliver $3,500 in savings per year.

The Westport police department aims to electrify a third of its 30-car fleet by 2025, which Koskinas calls a “very realistic goal.” The fleet currently includes seven hybrid or fully electric vehicles, one of which is a BMW i3 used for school security. In a matter of days, the department expects to receive its second Tesla, a Model Y, which will be used as a patrol car. And the department, which oversees the town’s emergency medical service, hopes to eventually purchase an electric ambulance.

The town’s strong network of charging stations helps make the department’s goals feasible. Westport’s solar-powered Metro North train station in Saugatuck, for instance, feeds four charging stations.

“We have three different chargers at the police station,” Koskinas said. “We have no problem getting two eight-hour shifts back to back.”

Middletown purchased its first electric vehicles in 2016, buying six Ford Focuses for city officials to drive. The city’s school system also has several electric vehicles and earlier this year became the first in Connecticut to have a fully electric school bus.

Joe Samolis, Middletown’s director of economic and community development, said the city hopes to continue adding charging stations, while weighing which other functions electric vehicles might serve.

“Every time there’s a vehicle purchased, we look to see whether it makes sense to transfer to either an electric or hybrid vehicle long term,” he said. “And we’ll continue to do that to see if we can transition our vehicles from traditional gasoline to electric.”

Two years ago, Newtown purchased its first electric vehicle, a Chevrolet Bolt, which charges at Town Hall and is used by the health department for restaurant inspections. In two years of usage, the car has not required any servicing, according to Hurley, the director of public works.

Year by year, Hurley hopes to transition Newtown’s fleet to electric power. Police cruisers could be coming down the line. And the town is interested in buying all-electric pickup trucks, like Ford’s F-150 Lightning, which has a range of 230 to 300 miles. Another appealing feature of the vehicle: a built-in inverter, which could provide power in the event of a blackout.

“Our sewer system has grinder pumps and in an emergency, we would have to go out and run those pumps to vacate them if the power went off,” Hurley said. “To have a truck that would have built-in electric capacity to run the pumps would be tremendous.”

Newtown has taken significant steps toward a green future in other ways, too. Currently, 85 percent of the electricity consumed by public buildings and schools is provided by solar power, Hurley said. Another project is set to push that metric past 95 percent.

“I’ve been anxious for this to happen for a very long time,” said Hurley, who has run Newtown’s public works department for more than 30 years. “And now we’re getting there. I’m just glad I’m alive to see it happen.”

In New Haven, Mayor Justin Elicker charges his Nissan LEAF at City Hall and drives it to public appointments across town — and occasionally all the way to the Capitol in Hartford.

“It’s great — I don’t have to stop and fill it up with gas,” Elicker said. “It’s certainly convenient, and the car runs really well.”

The city engineer uses New Haven’s other Nissan LEAF, and the city also has a number of hybrid vehicles, which are used by parking enforcement officers and other municipal workers.

New Haven aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, and expanding its number of municipal electric vehicles is a “priority,” Elicker said. But there are obstacles to surmount, from current supply-chain issues impacting electric vehicles to the need for a more robust charging network.

Transitioning New Haven’s police fleet to electric power could prove a “real challenge,” Elicker said, since the city’s police cars are often used nonstop and would have little time to charge. Still, public support for electric vehicles is growing, and the city has begun to discuss what a citywide plan for charging stations might look like.

“In the suburbs, people can drive in their driveways and charge them, but in a city, many people are parking on the street,” Elicker said. “It’s just complicated to even think about how logistically we will be able to do that.”

Not Everyone on Board

Even as public officials throughout Connecticut discuss climate change with increasing urgency, and as electric vehicles become more common among residents, most leaders have not embraced the new technology.

In Greenwich — the town with the highest number of registered electric vehicles in the state, as of July 1 — town officials are in the “infancy stage” of plans to buy electric vehicles, fleet manager Jay Domeseck said. One proposal would call for the purchase of two electric vehicles next year, to be used for parking services.

Domeseck said plans depend on analysis of the costs involved, as well as the installation of charging stations. He said that while electric vehicles might be useful in some contexts, he doubts they’ll be suitable for the entire fleet.

“It’s not going to work everywhere,” Domeseck said. “When we have snowstorms, I need vehicles that can run 18 hours a day plowing snow and sanding roads, which right now you can’t do with electric vehicles.”

Greenwich also won’t be purchasing fully electric police vehicles anytime soon, Domeseck said, due to concerns they wouldn’t charge quickly enough.

In Stamford, which ranks just behind Greenwich in its number of registered electric vehicles, the city itself does not own any electric vehicles.

Mayor David Martin said he had hoped, before recently being voted out of office, to wait until electric vehicles became more affordable, and then replace all nonemergency city vehicles at the same time. He argues that approach is more efficient than buying electric vehicles gradually, as other towns and cities have.

“It’s an extremely costly approach to buy one vehicle at a time because the technology is changing, and it ends up being very expensive from the maintenance side,” Martin said. “As well as the fact that if I wait a year later, this technology more than likely will get less expensive or it will have improved features.”

Hartford also does not have any electric vehicles, but director of operations Nat Gale said the city hopes to phase in an entirely electric fleet by 2035.

”Transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in our nation,” Gale said, “so focusing on our transportation sector as part of our sustainability goals to meet the needs of climate resiliency is a smart strategy; it’s a winning strategy; it’s good for our environment; it’s good for our pocketbook.”

Gale said the city’s analysis has found that electric vehicles are cheaper than other vehicles in the long term due to savings on fuel and maintenance. That, plus the desire to reduce the pollution experienced by Hartford residents, makes electric vehicles and obvious choice, he said.

The city’s first priority, Gale said, will be replacing vehicles simply used by municipal employees to get around.

”That’s the lowest-hanging fruit because they’re really vehicles just used for transportation,” Gale said. “After that we’ll start looking at some of the more high-intensity-use vehicles, and those are heavy-duty trucks as well as our police fleet.”

Making Use of Federal Funds

Some Connecticut towns are capitalizing on available funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other state and federal sources to jump-start their transition to electric power.

In West Hartford, town leaders are interested in beginning to shift over to electric vehicles, but first want to build out the town’s charging infrastructure, said town manager Matt Hart. The mayor’s office has submitted a roughly $300,000 proposal to the town council to use a combination of ARPA funding and bond funding to add electric charging stations across the town.

West Hartford officials are also following the development of electric passenger vans, which are set to become more more widely available in coming years. Hart noted that electric vans could begin to replace the vehicles the town uses to transport school students and public works staff.

“We have roughly 20 [vans] between the town and school district, and we think those could make very good sense for us in the future,” Hart said.

Other sources of federal funding may soon make a difference for municipalities across the state. Over the next five years, at least $53 million earmarked for electric vehicle charging stations is set to arrive in Connecticut as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Tax credits for electric vehicles that are part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act will also help, officials say, bolstering preexisting state incentives.

Glastonbury — which owns two electric Ford Focus cars, as well as a series of hybrid vehicles — is eyeing state and federal funding in order to further expand its fleet and its network of charging stations, said town manager Richard Johnson.

“If you go to the library, can you charge your electric vehicle? The answer before too long will be yes,” he said.

In Fairfield, local officials recently approved the purchase of 15 new electric vehicles, using federal funds. The vehicles will be used primarily by inspectors who had previously used old police cars, said Jackie Bertolone, chief of staff for First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.

“We really wanted to include some green indicatives, in terms of how can we make our town hall, our town, our government operate in a greener way,” Bertolone said. “It was a no-brainer, really.”

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