A salesman, right, explains to customers about the new electric Chevrolet Bolt, which display at the e-Motor show in Beirut, Lebanon, April 11, 2019. Credit: Hussein Malla | AP

The number of Maine residents driving electric vehicles has doubled over the past few years as this relatively new technology has become more functional and affordable, and more vehicle charging stations have been installed throughout much of the state.

Just over 1,300 Mainers owned electric cars in 2018, which is more than twice as many as in 2014, according to a recent survey conducted by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“Electric vehicles are an option that more Maine people are choosing,” said Sophie Janeway, the NRCM’s climate and clean energy outreach coordinator. “They’re cost effective and they reduce air pollution.”

To support Mainers transitioning to clean transportation, Gov. Janet Mills and the Efficiency Maine Trust recently announced the creation of new financial initiatives to purchase electric vehicles, as well as the installation of at least 50 new public vehicle charging stations. This will be funded in part by a $5.1 million settlement won last year when Mills was attorney general against Volkswagen for violating state environmental laws.

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“The announcement is really big news,” Janeway said. “It’s going to continue to make [electric vehicles] more accessible. With more chargers in our communities, it’s becoming a choice that’s easier to make.”

Yet, electric cars continue to make up a very small percentage of vehicles on the road in Maine and across the country. Many people have yet to be sold on gas-free cars, especially in rural areas where electric vehicle charging stations are scarce and rough roads often require four-wheel drive and high clearance, something that most current electric vehicles models don’t have — yet.

How Maine compares to the nation

In Maine, 464 electric vehicles were sold in 2017, accounting for 0.8 percent of the vehicles sold that year in the state, according to data compiled by Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. The following year, the number of electric vehicles sold in Maine nearly doubled to 799, a market share of 1.13 percent.

Compared to other states, this places Maine in the middle of the pack for electric vehicle sales. In 2018, Mississippi had the lowest electric vehicle market share, selling 231 electric vehicles for a market share of 0.22 percent. California led the way, selling 153,442 electric vehicles for a market share of 7.84 percent.

“I think the [electric vehicle] market will continue to grow, but not quickly,” said Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, the largest automobile dealer in Maine with 19 dealerships statewide. “I think in the next two to five years, we’ll see it take off. But right now, electric cars are selling at maybe 1 percent of new cars sold, so even if it doubled, it’d only be 2 percent.”

Tesla Motors, based in California, is seen as a leader of the industry. It’s Roadster, released in 2008, was the first serial production all-electric car to travel more than 200 miles per charge.

“Tesla woke up the auto industry,” Lee said. “They really showed the industry that there’s enough interest in electric cars. In the next two years, there’s probably 20 to 25 new models [of electric vehicles] coming out in this country.”

Currently, the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Bolt are among the more popular electric vehicle models available in Maine. However, the high cost of these vehicles remains a barrier for many customers, Lee said. The Nissan LEAF has a starting cost of around $30,000, while the Chevrolet Bolt costs around $36,000. The current TESLA models range from $36,000 to $90,000.

“People forget that while they may be a little pricey up front, there’s no engine, no oil, no exhaust or catalytic converter. There are so few parts that they are much cheaper to maintain,” Lee said. “And electricity is cheaper than gas.”

In addition, there’s currently a federal electric vehicle tax credit of $7,500.

The challenges of going electric

The top concerns Maine electric vehicle drivers have, according to the NRCM survey, are availability of public charging stations and the related problem of not having enough battery range to reach certain destinations. This common worry among electric vehicle drivers is referred to as “range anxiety.”

“In Maine, people mostly have to drive places, and the distances are often pretty long. Many people commute far to work,” said Gary Goodrich, owner of Replenova Farm in Cumberland.

A self-proclaimed early adopter of new technology, Goodrich purchased a Tesla all-electric car about five years ago. The vehicle was expensive, he said, but at the time, it was the only electric vehicle model with a long enough battery range for his needs.

“I felt comfortable with 200 miles [for a range],” Goodrich said. “I have a camp that’s 60 miles away. You want to be able to go somewhere and come back and not have to worry about it.”

With all-electric cars, if you run out of battery, your vehicle dies. If you can’t find somewhere to plug it in to recharge it, you’re out of luck.

Recognizing this as a major concern among consumers, Tesla and other automobile companies have been focusing on lengthening battery range in their new models. The 2019 Tesla Model S Long Range model has a range of 335 miles, the 2019 Chevy Bolt boasts a range of 238 miles, and the 2019 Nissan LEAF has a range of up to 226 miles.

Unfortunately, the ranges of these vehicles decrease dramatically in the cold — something to take into account in a state like Maine.

“I lose probably 20 to 30 percent of my range in the winter time,” Goodrich said. “That’s something people need to be aware of.”

Electric vehicle owners do most of their charging at home, usually while they sleep, Goodrich explained. However, for long trips, they have to rely on public charging stations to keep their vehicles powered.

Maine’s network of public charging stations has expanded in recent years as more businesses such as L.L.Bean, hotels and car dealerships have installed stations for customers. In addition, Tesla has installed multiple Tesla-exclusive supercharging stations along Interstate 95, and Efficiency Maine plans to issue a solicitation for bids in April to install 50 to 60 charging stations across the state at public properties, workplaces and multi-unit dwellings.

But Maine still has a way to go before “range anxiety” among electric vehicle drivers can be eliminated. According to PlugShare, a mobile app that maps out electric vehicle charging stations across the country, the northernmost charging station in Maine is in Millinocket, at Baxter State Park headquarters. That means that all of Aroostook County is currently without any charging stops.

Credit: Courtesy of the Natural Resources Council of Maine

Compromises and improvements

Many people are easing into electric by starting off with a plug-in hybrid, which is a vehicle that is charged by being plugged in (just like an all-electric vehicle) and runs primarily off electricity but also has a gas engine — just in case.

Guy Marsden of Woolwich decided to go this route, leasing the Chevrolet Volt, a model that is now discontinued. The car has a battery range of about 50 miles, then the engine kicks on. Since Marsden doesn’t travel much, it’s the perfect fit.

“Last year, for the entire year, I bought 23 gallons of gas,” Marsden said.

Having a hybrid eliminates any range anxiety, Marsden said, but someday he’d like to switch to an all-electric model. He’s keeping a close eye on the industry. As an artist, he needs his next vehicle to have plenty of room for transporting sculptures.

Current electric vehicle models are fairly small. They also have low clearance and lack four-wheel drive, which is not ideal for many of the state’s rough, gravel roads.

“What I’m looking for in the near future, I hope, is an all-electric pickup truck,” Goodrich said, “because let’s face it — about half the cars in Maine are pickup trucks.”

Rivian, a company founded in 2009 and based in Michigan, has announced the release of the first all-electric pickup truck, with production set to begin in 2020. The truck will have a 400-mile range and a starting price of $69,000. In addition, a new company out of Arizona, Atlis Motor Vehicles, recently announced their plan to develop an all-electric pickup truck.

The variety of electric vehicles is expected to increase even further as some long-established automobile companies, such as Volvo, are focusing on rolling out a broader range of hybrids and fully battery electric models.

“I think that as this technology improves, it’s going to become more and more cost effective,” Goodrich said. “Believe it or not, it’s going to make economic sense.

“In my opinion, we’ve already passed the point where the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

The advantages of electric cars

Of the 430 electric vehicle drivers in Maine who completed the recent NRCM survey, the number one reason they decided to purchase an electric vehicle was to reduce air pollution and address climate change.

“It just makes you a better citizen,” Goodrich said. “Global warming is real, and people can do real things to make a big change.”

In the most recent report of Maine Department of Environmental Protection on greenhouse gas emissions, transportation accounted for more than 50 percent of the state’s total CO2 emissions. These emissions come from the burning of petroleum. Since all-electric vehicles don’t run on gas, they’re emission free.

“I smile every time I go by a gas station,” said Jim Matlack of Rockport, who purchased his all-electric Chevrolet Bolt about two years ago. “My wife and I have a profound concern about climate disruption and the effect of carbon products getting into the atmosphere at increasing rates.”

In addition to not contributing to air pollution, electric vehicles are quiet, reducing sound pollution. And according to Marsden, they’re fun to drive.

“Everyone is surprised about the neck-snapping acceleration of all these cars. They’re fricking rockets,” Marsden said. “People have this preconception that electric cars are wimpy, but that’s just not true.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...