People gathered for a ceremony unveiling an electric vehicle charging station in the southwest parking lot of Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in this April 2019 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Maine needs to accelerate plans to get more electric vehicles on the road as other states and carmakers use them as linchpins to move ahead in a race to cut emissions and save on fuel, according to a national study released Wednesday.

The nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Maine 5th among New England states and 17th nationally. All regional states except New Hampshire ranked in the top 30, with Massachusetts leading them. California topped the overall rankings. The report looked at plans and goals for charging infrastructure, incentives to expand electric vehicles and electric grid optimization.

The report comes a week after President Joe Biden raised the stakes for states to get on board with electric vehicles and a major U.S. automaker said it would change over its fleet. Biden made electric vehicles the centerpiece of his climate plan, saying he wanted to convert about 645,000 postal trucks and passenger vehicles to all-electric and incentivize American companies to build a network of 500,000 charging stations.

The automotive industry had been moving in this direction, but the president’s actions may have accelerated the trend. Shortly afterward, General Motors announced it would sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035. It has committed to spending $27 billion on electric vehicles and rolling out 30 new models by 2025.

For now, all-electric vehicles represent only a tiny fraction of ones on the road. As of last August, only 2 percent nationwide were electric, the national council said. Maine lags that figure at just 0.5 percent of vehicles, according to the Maine Climate Council.

Some automotive dealers already are getting more requests for electric and hybrid cars. Lee Auto Malls, which has 19 dealerships in Maine, sold about 70 Nissan and Toyota vehicles combined last year and more than 200 hybrids, according to dealership managers. 

A Nissan Leaf electric car ranges from $31,000 to $45,000. The dealership was offering an $7,000 rebate for purchased cars and $11,000 on a lease, and there was another $2,000 rebate from Efficiency Maine. A Toyota RAV4 hybrid ranges from $30,300 to $39,900, offered with a $4,000 manufacturers’ rebate and $1,000 rebate from Efficiency Maine. A gas version starts at $29,500.

Dylan Ruscansky, a sales consultant at Lee Toyota in Topsham, said buyers are beginning to understand the multiple benefits of owning an electric vehicle beyond fuel economy, including improved performance and features like four-wheel drive.

Maine also has ambitious plans for widespread use of clean-car technologies as it moves toward Gov. Janet Mills’ climate goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050. A roadmap scheduled for release in 2022 would identify policies, programs and regulatory changes needed to meet those goals, according to the four-year plan for climate action released by the Democratic governor’s Maine Climate Council in December.

That action plan also urged the state to hasten electric vehicle plans. It said transportation is responsible for 54 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Of those emissions, 59 percent are from light-duty passenger cars and trucks, 27 percent from medium- and heavy-duty trucks and 14 percent from rail, marine, aviation and utility equipment vehicles.

The plan said the most significant greenhouse gas reductions in transportation will come from long-term and large-scale electrification of the transportation systems and other measures such as policies that encourage development of housing, schools and shopping areas in pedestrian-friendly downtowns and villages.

Still, Maine hasn’t joined a politically fraught regional effort to curb and price vehicle emissions. Governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, along with Washington, D.C.’s mayor, signed the initiative in December to reduce motor vehicle emissions by 26 percent by 2032.

The initiative will require large gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase “allowances” for the pollution caused by fuels they sell in the region. The allowances would decline each year, generating billions for states to invest in carbon-reducing transportation options.

The states that signed account for about 73 percent of the transportation emissions and 76 percent of vehicles in New England. The governors of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have expressed skepticism about the program, in part over fears that it amounts to a tax that would mostly burden people in rural areas. The average Maine vehicle travels 12,000 miles a year with 65 percent of driving in rural areas, according to the state.

The Maine Climate Council recommended that Maine put 41,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and 219,000 by 2030.

The national council said three policies are likely to have the greatest effect on spurring adoption of electric vehicles: zero-emission vehicle mandates and deployment targets, financial incentives for vehicle purchases and incentives for installing vehicle chargers.

In its ratings report, the council said Maine has taken a number of important steps to encourage and enable residents to use electric vehicles. But the state “should rapidly step up its efforts, which could in turn reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, decrease air pollution and cut fueling and maintenance costs for individuals and businesses.”

Maine earned points for adopting California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Program, which requires manufacturers of light duty passenger vehicles to offer a certain number of zero-emission vehicles. The state also was praised by the council for efforts to decarbonize its electric grid, which increases greenhouse gas reductions achieved by transitioning to electric vehicles.

However, Maine missed points because it does not have a comprehensive state plan to guide electric vehicle and charging deployment. It also lacks purchase incentives for commercial vehicles like heavy duty buses or delivery trucks. The study authors said these are “a few of the top areas where the legislature and executive branch could set new policies.”