George Bussey is already sold on electric vehicles. On a gray winter day, he navigates the snow-covered streets of Bayfield in his 2021 Chevy Bolt. Bussey, who lives just south of Ashland, said he’s already put about 17,000 miles on the four-door hatchback since he and his wife Dorota bought it two years ago.
"I just love this car," Bussey said. "This is my favorite car of all the cars I've had ... going all the way back to my used 1957 Cadillac."
Compared to a gas-powered engine, it runs quietly. And Bussey, 74, has also been happy with its range. At its best, the Bolt can go about 250 miles on a full charge. It also was the right price, he said, at about $30,000.
In Wisconsin, electric cars represent fewer than 1 percent of the more than 6.1 million vehicles on the road. Even so, the number of EVs is growing. The state registered 13,893 electric vehicles last year — an increase of more than 53 percent from 2021. Nationally, electric vehicles made up nearly 6 percent of new car sales last year. President Joe Biden has set a goal for EVs to make up half of all new car sales by the end of the decade.
Now it may be even more affordable for others who want to make the switch to electric cars. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last year devoted nearly $370 billion to fight climate change and shift to clean energy. That includes tax credits of up to $7,500 for people to buy electric vehicles or EVs. But the tax credits come with some strings attached, and many buyers are still worried about the lack of public charging infrastructure.
Bill Bussey, George’s brother, is one of those who's weighing whether now is the right time to buy. On a cold February morning, the two are enjoying lattes at Wonderstate Coffee in Bayfield. Bill and his wife Nancy are looking to replace their Toyota Prius that’s getting up there in miles. He said they will probably buy an electric vehicle a year or two down the road.
"We need to look into the charging infrastructure, where we could stop along the way, how long it would take," Bill said.
Finding a place to charge can be a particular concern for people who live in rural areas and may need to routinely drive longer distances than those in more densely populated regions.
But it’s not just Bayfield residents who have questions about the practicality of EVs. Last year, a Consumer Reports survey released in July found 71 percent of Americans had some interest in buying or leasing an all-electric vehicle. However, those still on the fence cited costs, charging logistics, and the range of electric vehicles as the top three barriers.
Bill Bussey said federal tax credits will also factor into the decision.
"You’ve got to come up with a good chunk of money to buy a new car and that financial incentive certainly helps," Bill said.
Incentives bring down EV costs, but they won't come easy
The transportation sector accounts for the largest share of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Because they don’t burn gasoline, EVs are a lower-emissions option compared to an internal combustion engine. That means they contribute less to climate change. Federal tax credits are meant to accelerate the transition to a cleaner form of transportation.
The Inflation Reduction Act allows eligible buyers up to a $7,500 tax credit for a new electric vehicle and up to $4,000 for a used one. But the incentives come with a complex list of requirements. Final assembly of EVs must take place in North America, and at least half of the car’s battery components must be manufactured or assembled there as well to obtain the full credit. Because batteries have usually been manufactured in Asia, that could limit the number of new vehicles eligible for the full tax credit under new rules set to be released this month.
Individuals and couples looking to buy new or used EVs must find vehicles within a specified price range, and they must also meet certain income thresholds to qualify for incentives.
Jeremiah Brockman, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association, said the incentives help make EVs more affordable.
"If you're on the lower side of the income bracket, and you want to get into an EV a little bit more cheaply, the used route is feasible now," Brockman said.
There haven’t been many used EVs on the market that qualify for incentives, but most people expect that to change as the market for new EVs continues to grow.
It likely won’t be easy for buyers lured by incentives to find vehicles that fit the requirements. The Internal Revenue Service has a list of qualified vehicles, but it’s still being updated. The average price for new electric cars is around $58,000, according to Kelly Blue Book.
But prices are coming down due to more competition and incentives as automakers ramp up production of EV models. The Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Kona Electric run about $30,000.
Bill Sepic, president of the Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Association, said 27 electric vehicle brands and 85 different models are being sold in Wisconsin. While options are growing, he noted supply-chain challenges and the ongoing microchip shortage may affect what dealers can offer.
"Certainly there are challenges getting the product into the store," Sepic said. "(That) doesn't mean that we aren't getting product in. It just means that there is not a lot of inventory sitting out there that allows people the opportunity to touch, feel and to sample."
Charging infrastructure lacking in rural, northern areas
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Public charging infrastructure is largely lacking near the Bussey brothers in northern Wisconsin, which has few of the state’s roughly 450 fast-charging stations. But that may change soon.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is preparing to build around 60 fast-charging stations statewide. Over five years, the state is receiving nearly $79 million under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to put them in place.
Kaleb Vander Wiele, who's managing the project for the state, said the chargers will be installed every 50 miles along designated roads including major interstates like I-94 and I-39. The state’s recently approved plans will also include routes like U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 51 in underserved rural parts of the state that connect to tourism destinations in northern Wisconsin.
Vander Wiele said it's also important for Wisconsinites who live in the southern metro areas of the state to "have that comfort in knowing that if you're going to the Northwoods, you have somewhere to charge along the way."
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Under the plan, 85 percent of the state’s highway system will be within 25 miles of a fast-charging station. Since people must stop at least 20 minutes or longer to charge, stations will be prioritized at retail outlets, restaurants and gas stations.
Ted Bohn, a principal electrical engineer with the Argonne National Laboratory who lives in Madison, said many people can get around for short commutes by charging vehicles overnight at their homes using a standard wall outlet. Most newer electric vehicles also have a range of 200 miles or more. Drivers of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have even more flexibility because they can refuel at a gas station for longer road trips. But Bohn acknowledged that the lack of charging infrastructure in rural areas does require travelers to plan ahead.
"It's like cell service was 20 years ago. When you're in town, it worked great. You got 30 miles out of town, (there were) holes everywhere," Bohn said. "And that's the way it is with Wisconsin roadways."
State grants are necessary to make the network of rural chargers “make financial sense,” said Wade Leipold of the Menasha-based Faith Technologies Incorporated. Leipold oversees development of charging infrastructure in the company’s energy division. And until the infrastructure is in place, Leipold said, the state likely won’t see broad adoption of electric vehicles in rural areas.
Wisconsin is an outlier on pricing for EV chargers
When Wisconsin builds its fast chargers, the state doesn't intend to own and operate them. Transportation officials envision charging stations funded through its plan would be hosted by private businesses.
But the state will have to work through federal requirements, including a single nationwide method of pricing.
Businesses in Wisconsin that own charging stations currently charge a rate by the minute — or the amount of time EVs are connected to them. But states that use federal money from the bipartisan infrastructure law must sell electricity by the kilowatt-hour at charging stations, much like Wisconsin's utilities. In Wisconsin, state law allows only regulated public utilities to sell electricity to the public. Creating charging stations that sell according to the federal regulation will likely require a change in state law.
Bill Skewes with the Wisconsin Utilities Association said utilities want to ensure "they’re the ones selling the electricity." Under state law, Wisconsin’s electric utilities are a state-regulated monopoly that are protected from competition in their service territories. In return, utilities have the obligation to provide reasonable service.
Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson and Public Service Commission Chair Rebecca Valcq have said the state should allow owners of charging stations to sell electricity by the kilowatt-hour. Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposes an exemption in state law to allow that. Valcq said lawmakers need to make it clear to businesses that charging stations selling electricity won’t be regulated like a utility.
"That clarification is long overdue," Valcq said.
Wisconsin is one of few states nationwide that hasn’t provided that clarification, according to charging company ChargePoint. Lawmakers from both parties have favored changing the law. A bill introduced last year by Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, would have allowed businesses other than utilities to charge for electricity sold. The legislation failed to advance in part over a dispute about chargers drawing power from solar sources, which utilities opposed.
"We need to pass something, or we're not going to get the build-out that I think we deserve because these electric cars are coming in whether you like them or not," Cowles said. "The citizens buy them, and they want to be able to charge them up. We're going to be an outlier within the Midwest if we don't do this."
Federal transportation officials have given states a year to decide how they want to proceed.
EV adoption brings environmental benefits
The environmental benefits of electric cars are part of the reason why Bill Bussey and his wife are considering buying one. In this, they’re like a lot of American consumers. Last July, a Pew Research Center survey found major reasons among those weighing an EV purchase included helping the environment and saving money on gas. A 2020 analysis by Consumer Reports found EV owners can save $6,000 to $10,000 over the life of the vehicle compared to gas-powered cars.
For Francisco Sayu, emerging technology director for RENEW Wisconsin, the transition to electric is an important environmental initiative.
"I highly encourage people to look at EVs," Sayu said. "The financial incentives are out there. They’re a lot cheaper to operate. They require a lot less maintenance. They're better for you, and the environment."
Sayu added a recent study from the University of Southern California linked adoption of electric vehicles to fewer asthma-related emergency room visits.
While it won’t be without challenges, Bill Bussey said the state is embarking on an exciting new era in transportation.
"It's going to be different. There are going to be some uncertainties," he said. "But the world is going to be a better place because we're willing to make those sorts of changes."