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Pennsylvania's transition to electric cars is going just OK, according to new report

One of Pittsburgh Regional Transit's electric buses. Across the state, less than one percent of all mass transit system buses are electric, according to an annual report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
One of Pittsburgh Regional Transit's electric buses. Across the state, less than one percent of all mass transit system buses are electric, according to an annual report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The U.S. transportation sector accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, so greener vehicles are critical for the national well-being. But although Pennsylvania has made some progress in electrification, a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that the commonwealth has significant room for improvement.

“I don’t think Pennsylvania’s doing the [work] necessary to really both plan for and help promote the transition to electric vehicles,” said Peter Huether, senior research associate at ACEEE, and an author of the report, the 2023 Transportation Electrification Scorecard.

Pennsylvania offers a $1,500 rebate to someone who buys a new plug-in hybrid vehicle, and $2,000 for a new electric vehicle (eligible low-income buyers can receive an additional $1,000). The state also will give rebates for Level 2 charging infrastructure, which can be either residential or commercial,and has incentivized utilities to invest in charging infrastructure projects.

However, state officials have not adopted definitive goals, such as a deadline for when dealers can no longer sell internal combustion engine vehicles.

Since the 1970 adoption of the Clean Air Act, California has had the ability to set its own vehicle emissions standards, and other states have the option to adopt those or the federal standards. California mandated that all new cars sold in the state be all-electric by 2035, and the ACEEE report urges more states to take up that regulation.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection signaled it would move to do so in 2021, it has not happened, said Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate with the nonprofit PennFuture.

The average lifespan of a new car is about 12 years, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, so Pennsylvania would have internal combustion engine cars on the road for years to come. Even so, “getting new purchases of cleaner vehicles is really what drives pollution down,” Altenburg said. “There isn’t much you can do after the fact.”

There are more than 12 million vehicles registered in Pennsylvania, and far fewer than 1 percent of them are electric, according to the ACEEE report. And despite various state grant programs to encourage alternative fuels, the percentage of electric school buses and transit system buses are even lower.

Some of the drag on the state’s willingness to push EVs may stem from a thorny issue many states face: how to fund vital infrastructure without the gas tax they currently rely on.

That is “not an unsolvable problem,” Altenburg said. But “that’s the elephant in the room when it comes to EVs right now.”

Even a hybrid vehicle like a Prius travels a lot further on less gas, raising the question of how to fund a transportation system with a fair level of support from everyone who uses it.

Amid years of falling gas tax revenue, discussions are ongoing about whether to charge a flat fee on electric vehicles — or to charge based on the number of miles traveled, as proposed in a 2021 PennDOT report.

Chris Sandvig leads transportation advocacy group Mobilify, and says he hopes to see far more state planning and investment for EVs. He worries, however, that the focus on EVs will mean ignoring a host of other problems associated with single-occupancy vehicles.

“Regardless of what’s moving those wheels … you do not deal with sprawl, you do not deal with the building-efficiency issues that come with sprawl,” he said. Then too, there is the carbon footprint created by the production of batteries, the fact that electric vehicles are heavier, and the question of how the electricity to run those cars is generated.

Huether of ACEEE agreed that while transportation electrification is critical, it’s not a panacea. “We need to be investing in public transit, as well as active transportation” like walking and biking, he said.