Once unusual, electric vehicle (EV) charging stations will soon be a common feature of most parking lots, garages, and neighborhoods in Boston and greater Massachusetts. According to an October 2016 report from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), since 2011, the number of plug-in EVs on the road in Massachusetts has increased from less than 100 to more than 5,000.

In response, the charging infrastructure in the state has also improved – from 33 charging stations in 2011 to nearly 550 in 2016. Across the U.S., there are about 7,500 charging stations available for public use.

“We’re talking about a real shift in how the public drives,” says Stephen Russell, director of the Clean Cities Coalition for Massachusetts, a project of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Russell, coauthor of the recent report, says those changes are significant because they represent movement towards a new lifestyle of EV driving. As clean cities coordinator, he works to encourage the use of alternative fuels by speaking with stakeholders across industries.

Saba Saddiki, a professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, says there are a number of challenges to successful EV adoption in Massachusetts. One challenge is ensuring that charging stations are widely available.

“Establishing the charging infrastructure is important, and we don’t necessarily see it a lot, even in places like California” which are highly invested in EV adoption, she said.

Fixing that problem requires ongoing collaboration between the automobile and utilities industries. Watson Collins, business development manager for the utility Eversource Energy, points out that the relationship between those two fields is still developing, but is essential for meeting New England’s future EV goals.

“We’ve been collaborating as two industries that never worked together before,” Collins says. “When you talk now to the folks that are handling the infrastructure issues, they now have great knowledge of the utility industry and in turn we’ve learned a lot about the automotive industry. It’s been a tremendous partnership.”

Providing enough charging stations

Transportation accounts for between 30-40% of U.S. carbon emissions. Collins says that electric vehicles have the potential to reduce that number significantly, but only if the proper infrastructure is in place.

“We’re going to have to look at how we do hundreds and thousands of chargers as opposed to dozens,” he says. “We want to help create that future and create viable business models.”

To help accomplish that goal, Collins formed in 2009 the Regional Electric Vehicles Initiative (REVI), which brings together seven New England utilities companies who want to move towards more electric transportation.

“It’s been a great way for us to learn together as utilities about how to address this,” he says, adding, “We saw a lot of consumer interest in this and that’s kind of driven our efforts.”

Now, there’s a growing network of charging stations across the state. Collins’ group has created a website called Plug My Ride that provides information on charging locations, types, and options.

Changes are also happening on the policy level. In 2013, Massachusetts became one of ten states to sign on to a Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) agreement, pledging to implement a variety of incentives to encourage people to purchase EVs. The overarching goal of this initiative is to help curb carbon emissions from transportation.

The plan is to put 3 million EVs on the road by 2025. For that to happen, Russell says there have to be about 300,000 vehicles in Massachusetts – a huge jump from the 5,000 EV owners today.

In February of this year, Saddiki coauthored a study in The Electricity Journal that rated the “readiness” of 36 cities in the U.S. for widespread EV implementation. The results were based on a variety of factors, including charging stations, consumer incentives, and electricity cost. Boston performed pretty well in most of these categories, the city received a weighted score of 13 compared to scores of 18 and 21 for cities on the West Coast, but Saddiki says the main takeaway from the study is that most places aren’t prepared for an overhaul.

“Across the board we find that states are not particularly ready,” Saddiki said. Even though EVs have come a long way in recent years, “It’s an unknown technology, and people just don’t have a lot of knowledge about it.”

Though the ZEV initiative is a step in the right direction, it may not be enough to overcome the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, Russell says ambitious goals like these help Massachusetts become a national leader in EV policy.

“Being part of this ZEV group, it helps get the manufacturers to notice us, which is important,” he said. “Other states will see they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but they can look at what we’ve done.”

Generating consumer demand

EV advocates like Russell and Collins are not only working towards infrastructure improvements, they’re also hoping to convince consumers that purchasing EVs is a viable option.

Saddiki points out that since fuel costs are relatively low in Massachusetts, people may be less likely to want to invest in an EV.

“One of the biggest barriers to adoption is the really high cost,” she said.

One approach is to provide financial incentives for people who purchase EVs, which offset the difference in price from a typical gasoline-powered vehicle. Massachusetts’ consumer rebate program, MOR-EV, offers those who purchase a battery-operated EV or Chevrolet Volt a $2500 rebate.

Saddiki says financial incentives were the most important category in the 2016 study. “We need something to make it less costly for people,” she said. “If you can have incentives that lead to direct monetary savings, we see that as really important, which is why we give it a higher weight in our analysis.”

Another way to increase consumer interest in EVs is by raising public awareness. Russell has worked with educational groups like Plug In America to organize local “Ride and Drives,” where people can talk to officials about rebates, hear from their peers about owning an EV, and most importantly, test drive cars.

“We’ve had ‘Ride and Drives’ at large workplaces,” Russell said. “We’re figuring that if we get people who are commuting every day and they see what the experience is, they’re more likely to say this makes sense for [them].”

As owners of EVs themselves, Russell and Collins are both aware of the challenges the vehicles present. Nevertheless, they’re excited about the improving charging infrastructure and the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an essential task in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Collins, who drives a 2014 BMW I-3, says he hardly worries about charging anymore. Instead, he’s excited about how EVs are changing the game in the automobile industry.

“Some of the most interesting cars to me coming down the pike are electric cars,” Collins said. “It motivates me and has importance to achieving the goals that are laid out. We as a company have a role and an opportunity to help achieve those goals.”

–Gwendolyn Schanker  is a fourth-year journalism and biology major at Northeastern University. She is the current editor-in-chief of NU Sci, Northeastern’s student-run science magazine, and is also a freelance writer for Northeastern’s College of Science. 

See also:

In switching to electric vehicles, 90 percent of drivers could get by without daytime recharging, say MIT researchers

Boosting the range of electric cars during cold weather is a must for many New Englanders