Let’s pump the brakes on the electric vehicle panic

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On Wednesday, a special legislative committee tasked with “modernizing” the state’s transportation funding system met for the second time, once again alleging that the rise in electric and hybrid vehicles pose an existential threat to the state’s gas tax revenue (which is how road projects in South Carolina are primarily funded). The committee, assembled by Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, has been instructed to propose legislation addressing the issue by January.

Before analyzing what was said during the second meeting, it’s worth revisiting the fundamental argument being made by the committee, which is that electric and hybrid vehicles will soon make up a significant portion of cars on the road in South Carolina, and this shift will undercut the collection of gas tax revenue needed to maintain the transportation system.  

First, this assertion comes at an awkward time, as the state’s collection of gas tax revenue has been steadily increasing in recent years thanks to a gas-tax-hike. That law, passed in 2017, has raised the tax on gasoline each year by 2 cents, and will bring the total gas tax to 26 cents per gallon by next summer.

Second, electric vehicles (EVs) right now account for an inconsequential number of vehicles in the state. According to figures provided by SCDOT at the first committee meeting, there only about 3,100 fully electric vehicles registered in South Carolina – compared to 3.2 million automobiles in the state. It would take a huge shift in consumer interest for these vehicles to impact the state’s bottom line. 

Finally, projections about the number of future EV drivers are massively ambitious, if not completely speculative. One study offered by SCDOT suggests that by 2050, electric vehicles will make up 40% of cars on the road. This study, however, appears to be referring to vehicle usage across the US, not in South Carolina, which makes the data far less relevant for our purposes. Regardless, even if electric vehicles are to dominate South Carolina’s roads, that reality is decades away.

If the testimony from earlier this summer weren’t enough to raise questions about the urgency of this issue, then what was revealed on Wednesday might do the job.  

First, representatives from the SC Manufacturers Alliance gave an update on trends in the automobile industry, particularly as they relate to South Carolina, and one set of information was especially noteworthy.  

Below is a list of several automobile manufacturers based in South Carolina involved in the production of electric and hybrid vehicles.  

  • BMW North America – Producing two hybrid vehicles, the X3 and X5 (both with a combined mpg in the mid 20s) 
  • Arrival – Plans to build electric buses  
  • OHSKOSH – Plans to build next generation of USPS mail carriers, one of which will be electric  
  • Proterra – Making electric busses  
  • Volvo – Making the S60; early production on fully electric Polestar 3 (set to arrive in 2022) 
  • Mercedes-Benz Vans – Plans to make electric eSprinter van (production expected in 2023) 

As you can see, the bulk of electric vehicles being made in South Carolina are designed for specialty use – like buses or delivery vehicles – and are not intended for the general public. Some of them are still years away from release, let alone widespread adoption.  

But let’s say, hypothetically, that local manufacturers began making electric vehicles for the public at rapid speed; or that residents began buying EVs in large quantities from other states; or that a huge influx of tourists driving EVs converged on South Carolina. What would happen then? The short answer is that many drivers, at least today, would face a shortage of fast and convenient methods for charging their vehicles.  

While the majority of electric vehicle charging is done at home, drivers without an upgraded charging station (called Level 2) suffer from exceptionally long power-up times, as the basic setup included with electric vehicles needs about 50 hours of charge for 200 miles, according to one estimate.   

And if a large number of vacationers suddenly appeared in the state (those without the convenience of a home charging station) the state would be ill-equipped to meet their needs. Yes, there are limited number “DC fast” (Level 3) charging stations in South Carolina – which provide charge speeds more comparable to filling up at a gas station – but there are very few outside of major urban areas. 

Naturally, the financial and electrical cost to build large-scale fast charging stations was a key point of discussion during Wednesday’s committee meeting. According to one representative from the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, the cost to buy a single DC fast charging station is $150,000. If someone were to construct a full size station equipped with 32 fast charging “pumps”, the cost for the chargers alone would be $4.8 million. That doesn’t even consider the massive drain it would put on state’s electrical grid. If all pumps were being used at the same time, it would create the same electrical demand as 16 Walmart Supercenters, according to the cooperatives spokesman. 

In other words, there are significant barriers in place preventing electric vehicles from being widely adopted in South Carolina anytime soon. Serious investment, developments in infrastructure, and changes in consumer behavior will need to occur before drivers shift in significant numbers from gas vehicles to electric.  

Unfortunately, these factors haven’t seemed to discourage lawmakers from pursuing some form of legislation – the scope of which is still unclear. According to the committee, the next meeting will take place sometime in December.

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Want to know more? Catch our video breaking down the first committee meeting here:  

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