By Yujie Xue
BU News Service
WORCESTER – The electric vehicle market in Worcester County, like the rest of the world, faces a chicken and egg conundrum.
Concerned with the range of electric vehicles and the availability of charging stations, few consumers are likely to replace their traditional internal combustion engine-powered cars with electric ones. Yet, building a charging infrastructure is expensive, and investors are understandably reluctant to commit capital until there is a market.
So, what will come first: the cars or the charging stations?
“The number of public charging stations in Worcester is not behind the demand,” said Mark Renburke, of Drive Electric Cars New England (DECNE), a chapter of the non-profit Electric Auto Association dedicating to promoting the adoption of electric cars.
Worcester County has 32 public charging stations, mostly located in Worcester, Auburn, and Westborough, according to charger mapping site Plugshare.com.
“For better or worse, unfortunately, Worcester County is one of the lowest per capita areas for electric vehicle adoption in Massachusetts,” said Renburke.
Renburke holds automobile manufacturers and dealers responsible for the low ownership rates.
In 2015, he joined a multi-state field study on electric vehicle shopping experience with environmental organization Sierra Club. The wide-reaching report confirmed a lack of commitment between car dealers and car manufacturers in selling electric vehicles, including salespeople who lacked basic knowledge about electric cars and a lack of available cars on dealer lots for test drives.
“Even when you are a well-informed consumer who’s determined to buy an electric car, an uninformed or unenthusiastic salesperson will give you a poor experience,” Renburke said.
Renburke recommended that dealers in Worcester increase the plug-in car inventory to more to make test drives easier. He also suggested that dealers offer regular training of salespeople on best practices in selling plug-in cars by informing buyers about incentives, charging infrastructure, and more.
Guy Bedau, salesperson at Milford Nissan, attributed low electric vehicle sales more to consumer interest than sales training though.
The local dealer doesn’t have formal training programs for its salespeople, but Nissan provides a training site and its own programs for salespeople to get quick access to all the proprietary information and product knowledge.
“Nissan dealers have to send their salesmen to the training program every year,” said Bedau, “but the salesmen don’t really have to learn, if no one wants to buy an [electric vehicle].”
Milford Nissan sells 100 gasoline cars and five to 10 electric cars monthly on average.
“In 2016, I sold around 60 [electric vehicles] in Worcester County,” Bedau said. “It’s growing, but the percentage is still small, around one to two percent of all the cars we sell.”
Former transportation project manager for National Grid, John Gilbrook, believes the low demand for electric vehicles Bedau references is based on the lack of infrastructure, even if it is meeting the current demand.
“If we want to achieve [electric vehicle] penetration, we need more infrastructure to make the drivers comfortable driving their [electric vehicles],” said John Gilbrook.
“Range anxiety” is often cited as the most important reason why buyers are reluctant to buy electric cars. The drivers worry that the battery will run out of power before reaching the destination or a suitable charging point.
“I don’t have problems charging my car, because WPI has several workplace chargers,” said Eric Yang, graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who drives a Nissan Leaf. “But I’m concerned about finding charging spots during long-range travel,” he added.
Given the cyclical nature of this problem, the state has chosen to attack the problem from both ends.
The Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Incentive Program provides 50% or up to $25,000 for hardware costs to employers installing Level 2 charging stations, which supply 240 volts and allow 10 to 15 miles of range after an hour of charge.
This December, state officials also announced $12 million in funding for the Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Rebate Program. Consumers who buy or lease new electric vehicles can qualify for rebates ranging from $750 to $2,500. The qualifying vehicles include 25 models, from battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric to fuel cell electric vehicles.
“Money always helps, but that’s all that the Massachusetts state government can do,” said John A. Orr, Director of Sustainability at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “It isn’t inexpensive, but the infrastructure development has to keep up with the [electric vehicle] adoption.”
Despite these hurdles, Orr remained hopeful about the success of the electric vehicle market in Worcester given improving technology, low maintenance costs, and high customer satisfaction.
“I am quite optimistic about the future of electric vehicles after all,” Orr said.