Devin D. Thorpe: Utah’s innovative fees for electric vehicles reflect flawed priorities

(Ding Ting | Xinhua via AP) In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Tesla vehicles are seen on an assembly line at Tesla's gigafactory in Shanghai, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

The state of Utah imposed fees on electric vehicles beginning in 2020 to make up for the fact that their owners pay no gasoline taxes, which are used to support road construction. A new, Big Brother-inspired, voluntary system for onboard tracking of the miles driven by electric car owners could reduce their annual fees. These efforts reflect the state’s flawed priorities.

It is correct, of course, that electric vehicles do not contribute to the state’s coffers through fuel taxes. There are a few other things electric cars do not add to, given that they don’t have tailpipes. They emit no PM 2.5s, the primary cause of visible smog and breathing problems. They emit no nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide or ozone. Above all, they emit no carbon dioxide.

While it is true that some electricity comes from coal and natural gas, which do emit the pollutants listed above, increasingly electricity comes from renewable sources like wind and solar. And electric cars aren’t just cleaner because of their fuel.

Electric motors are dramatically more efficient than internal combustion engines. They simply use less energy. A Tesla Model S is rated by the Department of Energy has having a MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) of 103 compared to the BMW 5 Series’ MPG of 27, meaning that the Tesla is almost four times as energy efficient.

Utah’s urban area air quality is notoriously poor. The state should be doing everything in its power — including incentives to drive electric vehicles — improve it. The surest way to reduce emissions from Salt Lake City’s five refineries is to make them obsolete as soon as possible.

Local air quality, however unifying it may be as a rallying cry, pales in comparison to the threat — rather, the existing impacts — of climate change. Our gas-guzzling ways in Utah have contributed to the fires that ravage Australia right now as well as the fires that have virtually destroyed entire communities in California in recent years. And, make no mistake, Utah’s turn for devastating wildfires is coming.

Utah’s ski industry is already being impacted by a shorter season. Some models suggest that unmitigated climate change could destroy the industry by the end of the century.

The Paris Climate Accord calls for climate action to avoid increasing the global average temperature by more than 1.5 degrees. To meet that goal, radical action is now required.

Here are some innovative ideas the state should consider in addition to new fees on electric cars. The state could support voluntary carbon offset programs to encourage people with gas guzzlers to reduce their carbon footprint. The state could experiment with a carbon tax on luxury automobiles that have especially poor fuel efficiency and can’t carry an entire baseball team. The state could change the law that prohibits its Public Service Commissions from even considering the environmental impact of fossil fuels in rate setting for public utilities.

Utah is a leader in technology and innovation. Now Utah needs to reset its priorities.

Devin Thorpe

Devin Thorpe, Salt Lake City, is an electric car-driving contributor to Forbes.