Are electric vehicles worth it? A new Clean Fuel Reward Program might help

A spot remains open at one of the spaces for the electric vehicle charging station in Belmont Shore. (Richard Grant | Signal Tribune)

One of the first things you might think of to reduce air pollution is switching from a gas-powered to an electric vehicle (EV). But are EVs worth the higher cost?

It may help to know that EVs come in four main types: battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs); hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) that have a gas-powered engine and electric motor; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which are HEVs but with larger batteries that can plug into an electricity source to charge; and the newest type, fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. 

Furthermore, “mild” HEVs have an electric motor not strong enough to drive the car but only assist the gas-powered engine in being more fuel efficient.

It also may help to know that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants 100% of new passenger cars and trucks sold in California to be electric by 2035, per an executive order he signed last September.

Nader Heidary, a sales manager at Long Beach Honda in Signal Hill, told the Signal Tribune that EVs make economic sense in the long run. However, though customers often ask about EVs, they are sometimes put off by the higher short-term cost, he said. 

EVs can cost $5,000 to $10,000 more than gas-powered vehicles, or about $200 to $400 more in monthly payments, Heidary said. Though Honda offers EV options, such as electric Clarity and CR-V models, he said the gas-powered Accord and Civic are still the dealership’s “bread and butter.”

EVs account for only 2% of all registered vehicles in California. But the state nevertheless leads the nation in electric-car sales, with 257,000 registered EVs in 2018, according to the DMV—nearly half the nationwide total. 

Graph based on California Energy Commission data of quarterly sales of electric vehicles both nationally and in California from 2010 to 2020, showing an overall increasing trend for both (Courtesy Veloz.org)

That makes sense since California also has 117 laws and incentives for purchasing EVs compared to 35 in the next highest state of Colorado, per the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

California added another incentive in January—a new Clean Fuel Reward Program (CFRP) designed to make EVs more affordable with a point-of-sale rebate of up to $1,500 for purchasing or leasing a BEV or PHEV. 

“California is committed to putting millions of EVs on our roads by 2030,” the CFRP states. “It’s all about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, improving air quality and moving toward carbon neutrality so we can address the climate emergency.”

This latest rebate adds to existing state and federal incentives that potentially reduce the cost of a new EV by thousands of dollars.

California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP) offers rebates of $1,000 on PHEV purchases, $2,000 on BEVs and $4,500 for the newer FCEVs, according to the California Air Resources Board. Since the program started in 2010, the CVRP has rebated consumers more than $9 billion. 

California also offers additional rebates to low-income residents, and offers $1,000 to $1,500, depending on income, for residents to retire vehicles that fail a smog test. 

The federal government offers tax credits ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 for BEVs and PHEVs, and up to $8,000 for new FCEV purchases, depending on fuel economy. 

Those who install alternative-fueling equipment in their homes by the end of 2021 can also earn a federal tax credit of up to $1,000. And Southern California Edison (SCE) offers a reduced electricity rate for charging vehicles at home.

California drivers can also get a Clean Air Vehicle sticker from the DMV to use the carpool lane with only one driver.

Despite these incentives, EVs are still a hard sell. Of 2019’s 10 top-selling cars in California, only one was an EV—the Tesla Model 3, a BEV that starts at over $38,000, according to MotorTrend.

Graphic from the California Energy Commission (CEC) compares 2020 new “light-duty” zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales in Los Angeles County to total new-vehicle sales. 2020 ZEV sales accounted for 2% of all new car purchases in 2020. (Courtesy CEC)

Besides the higher sticker-price, some object that switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric simply moves the energy burden to the power grid. 

“As the penetration of EVs grows, their load will eventually […] be a major factor on the distribution system,” electric-utility news site UtilityDive reported on Jan. 12, anticipating a five-fold increase in EVs by 2025. 

However, according to the US Department of Energy, since producing electricity involves lower carbon emissions than burning gasoline or diesel, an EV produces fewer emissions over its lifespan than conventional vehicles.

And EVs may actually reduce consumer electricity costs, per a 2019 study cited by Veloz, an organization that promotes electric cars.

“The increase in overall demand is minimal,” Veloz says. “And electric vehicles benefit the grid by storing and managing energy, and driving electricity rates down for users.”

Map of electric-vehicle charging stations in Long Beach and Signal Hill (Google Maps).

Josh Boone, Veloz’s executive director, says moving to all-electric vehicles is especially imperative to help low-income communities. 

“Disadvantaged communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of fossil-fuel pollution,” Boone said in a blog post last month. “They have more oil-and-gas refineries and car and heavy-truck traffic than more affluent neighborhoods – and now there is evidence that these individuals are dying, not just of heart and lung disease, but COVID-19 at higher rates because of it.” 

Long Beach’s air quality has been well documented as harmful, especially for those living near the 710 Freeway connecting trucks to the refineries and ports. 

Recent studies have linked Long Beach air pollution to both increased asthma among children and potentially higher Alzheimer’s rates among older women. 

The American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air report gives the Los Angeles-Long Beach area a failing grade for particulate pollution and ranks it first in the nation for high-smog days. 

So are electric vehicles worth it? 

“From factory to road, electric vehicles—with zero tailpipe emissions—emit a fraction of global-warming pollutants that gas-powered vehicles produce,” Veloz finds.

On this Earth Day, perhaps the answer should be yes.

A Chevy Bolt from the Marine Bureau receives a charge from the electric vehicle charging station in Belmont Shore. (Richard Grant | Signal Tribune)
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