Utah is quickly adding electric cars, but they are still few and far between

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Utah registered 35 percent more electric vehicles last year than it will in 2021, but EVs still make up less than 1 percent of vehicles in the state.

Utah added 75,766 more vehicles in 2022, according to registration data from the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles. The additions include 9,125 electric vehicles, bringing Utah’s total electric vehicle fleet to 25,532. At the end of 2021, it was 16,407.

And for the first time, more electric cars than diesel vehicles were added to the state, which grew by 8,808 last year. However, the majority of diesels are light and heavy duty. The majority of electric vehicles are passenger cars.

Utah was 12th among states in the growth of electric vehicle registrations in a study with data from 2021, slightly above the national average. A similar comparison of 2022 registrations is not yet available.

Last year, Utah registered 2,864,937 cars and trucks, including commercial vehicles. With a population of about 3.4 million, the state still has more people than vehicles, but in 2022, as in 2021, it added more vehicles than people. (Population estimates put Utah’s growth in 2022 at about 50,000 people.)

And while gasoline power still dominates (87% of registered vehicles in Utah), that dominance is waning. Gas-powered cars accounted for just 62% of vehicles added last year. Electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and regular hybrids accounted for more than a quarter of new vehicles added.

(Christopher Cherington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While the 35% annual growth is impressive, it’s still not enough to convert even half of Utah’s fleet over the next 10 years. That rate will only bring about 500,000 electric vehicles by 2032.

“When so much of our carbon emissions come from transportation, nothing seems fast enough, but the momentum is undeniable,” said Kelbe Goupil, senior electrification fellow for Utah Clean Energy.

“Utah may lag behind other states in EV adoption today, but we have one of the best charging stations in the nation,” Goupil said. “We are poised to become a national leader in EV adoption, and I am confident that with more education and a few key policy changes, we can become that leader.”

Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah, thinks Ford’s introduction of the F-150 electric pickup could be a tipping point. “I think the Ford Lightning is an amazing truck, and I think a lot of people are going to want these things once they become more affordable. I think it’s hard to get one right now, but I know a lot of people who are dying to get one.”

Utah is not one of a handful of states, led by California, that have quotas requiring a certain percentage of new cars to be zero-emissions. So-called ZEV countries tend to receive more of the new EVs produced by manufacturers.

It will be difficult for Utah to compete with the ‘ZEV’ section 177 states in terms of inventory,” Miller said. “ … But given that it has become the new normal to have to order a vehicle due to the lack of inventory due to Covid issues, this may not be as much of a deterrent because people will be able to find them on others seats or even a special order.”

Tammy Bostick, executive director of Utah Clean Cities, said Utah is between the “innovator” and “early adopter” stages of introducing new technologies, meaning it has not yet moved to the “early majority” stage, where acceptance is widespread. But the state is building the infrastructure to make that move. “I think Utah needs to do everything it can to support the adoption of clean vehicles, and I think we’ve done that.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Building infrastructure is key to increasing Utah’s electric vehicle stock, clean energy advocates say. Here, cars are charged at the electric vehicle charging station at Soldier Hollow Golf Course, in Midway, on Monday, June 20, 2022.

The federal government has introduced numerous incentives for both companies and individuals to switch to cleaner transportation. With the cost of new cars so high, Bostick thinks the $4,000 tax incentive for used electric vehicles will be a big driver of Utah’s conversion. “I think it’s a fantastic addition.”

In what is perhaps the most promising news for Utah air quality, cars manufactured in 2017 or earlier now make up more than a third of vehicles registered in Utah. This is important because Tier 3 petrol cars were introduced in 2017. When combined with Tier 3 petrol, they reduce emissions by up to 80 per cent compared to older cars and non-Tier 3 fuels. level 3 are available at most gas stations in Utah.

There was a decline in natural gas vehicles last year. They produce less air pollution than petrol cars and were once seen as a promising solution. In 2021, there were 5,301 CNG vehicles registered, but in 2022, they fell to 5,060, a decrease of 4.8%. This continues a trend from 2020, when there were more than 6,000 CNG vehicles registered in Utah.

It should be noted that the CNG decline does not include heavy trucks. Diesel still dominates heavy-duty trucks, but CNG and electric heavy-duty vehicles are small but growing. These are usually commercial vehicles in fleets that have their own refueling infrastructure.

And there are only two hydrogen-powered vehicles registered in Utah: one car and one light truck. Hydrogen, which can be produced and burned without generating greenhouse gases, was touted as a green solution for the trucking industry, but it didn’t materialize here. Unlike California, which has a network of hydrogen stations, Utah has no hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

Bostick believes hydrogen-fueled heavy-duty trucks will become more common in Utah. She noted that 70 percent of U.S. imports go through California, and 40 percent of them come through Utah. As California trucks turn to more hydrogen, Utah will follow, she said.

Goupil thinks Utah should adopt the “Advanced Clean Truck Rule.” Six states have adopted the rule, which sets a deadline for converting to clean medium- and heavy-duty trucks. “Adoption of the Advanced Clean Trucks rule in Utah would provide a path to reduce emissions from MHD vehicles, ensure model availability and preserve consumer choice as we transition from diesel to electric vehicles.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.

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