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.
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Electric and hybrid cars have blossomed in the past five years, but in raw numbers, gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks still dominate the growing number of vehicles in Utah.
According to Utah Division of Motor Vehicle statistics, registrations for electric vehicles are up 560% since 2017, jumping from 2,485 to 16,407. Hybrid vehicles — including plug-in models — have soared from 33,869 in 2017 to 62,476 this year, an 84% increase.
But, in that same period, Utah added 360,741 gas- and diesel-powered vehicles as the state’s booming population mushroomed by an estimated 426,000 people.
That means Utah’s car registrations are rising faster than its people. In 2017, there was 0.80 vehicles for every person in Utah. Now there is 0.82. And traditional gas and diesel still power more than 97% of them.
Globally, 2022 is the peak year for sales of cars powered by internal combustion engines, which includes gas and diesel ones, according to Bloomberg’s 2022 Electric Vehicle Outlook. First introduced in the 19th century, internal combustion has had a remarkable 130-year run, but 2023 will see fewer sold than this year.
Utah won’t be turning the corner on internal combustion this year. One of the most dramatic increases since 2017 is in heavy diesel trucks. Utah rocketed from 59,861 diesel-powered heavy trucks to 76,116. That is a 27% leap.
Most of those trucks were added in Wasatch Front counties, where vehicle-generated air pollution is a persistent problem.
And big pickup trucks rank among the the fastest-growing categories. In the 14,000-pound to 20,000-pound gross vehicle weight categories, Utah went from 18,205 in 2017 to 30,254 this year, a 66% gain. In raw numbers, the state added about the same number of these trucks as it did electric vehicles over the same five years.
A leading theory is that the pandemic-fueled rush in outdoor recreation has driven demand for diesel and gas trucks that can haul fifth-wheel trailers, boats and trailers for all-terrain vehicles.
Craig Bickmore, executive director of the Utah Automobile Dealers Association, says the vehicle mix is driven by demand. “People need to look at what the customer wants to drive. The factories are going to produce what the customer wants.”
He notes that newer pickups, including the big diesels, are much cleaner. “Diesel is a very efficient horse.”
Bickmore also says supply issues are making it harder for customers to update, regardless of their choice. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for a lot of stuff.”
Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah, a clean air advocacy group, agrees that even replacing older fossil-fuel burners with newer ones is making a significant difference to air quality, although she acknowledges that doesn’t do much to reduce the state’s carbon footprint since they’re still powered by fossil fuels.
And Utah’s fleet is definitely getting newer. Among 2022 registrations, 870,000 cars were 2017 or newer, when cleaner Tier 3 standards for new cars began. That is more than a quarter of all vehicles in the state.
Miller points out that Utah isn’t one of the 12 “ZEV” states. Led by California, ZEV states have established quotas requiring a certain percentage of new vehicle sales be zero emission. As a result, manufacturers ship more electric cars to those states.
“Most EVs go to states participating in the ZEV program,” she says, “so whatever is left from the manufacturers goes to other states where there is demand.”
Thomas Kessinger, beneficial electrification program manager for Utah Clean Energy, another advocacy group, sees a mixed bag on EV rollout in Utah.
“The good news is that Utah is leading in electric vehicle infrastructure funding. The Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program dedicated $50 million specifically for expanded EV charging across Utah, and, as a state, we are preparing for the influx of federal Infrastructure funds,” Kessinger says. “But the bad news is that we don’t have enough EVs in Utah to meet the demand because Utah never passed a ZEV rule. While we continue to make charging accessible and affordable for all, we still need to work on increasing EV availability in the state.”
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.