Utah adding electric cars quickly, but they’re still few and far between

For the first time, people added more electric than diesel vehicles last year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves through Sugarhouse along 2100 S between 700 East and 1100 East on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022. The cars on Utah's streets are getting cleaner, but at the current rate it will be more than a decade before a majority of cars are carbon-free.

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Utahns registered 35% more electric vehicles last year than they did in 2021, but EVs are still less than 1% of the vehicles in the state.

Utah added 75,766 more vehicles in 2022, according to registration data from the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles. The additions include 9,125 electric vehicles, bringing the total electric vehicle fleet in Utah to 25,532. It was 16,407 at the end of 2021.

And, for the first time, more EVs were added to the state than diesel vehicles, which grew by 8,808 last year. The majority of diesels, however, are light and heavy trucks. The majority of EVs are passenger cars.

Utah was 12th among states for growth of electric vehicle registrations in one study of 2021 data, slightly above the national average. No similar comparison of 2022 registrations is available yet.

Last year Utah registered 2,864,937 cars and trucks, including commercial vehicles. With a population of about 3.4 million, the state still has more people than vehicles, but in 2022, as in 2021, it added more vehicles than people. (Population estimates put Utah’s 2022 growth at about 50,000 people.)

And while gasoline power still dominates (87% of Utah’s registered vehicles), that domination is slipping. Gas-powered vehicles are only 62% of the vehicles added last year. EVs, plug-in hybrids and regular hybrids are more than a quarter of the new vehicles added.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While 35% annual growth is impressive, it’s still not enough to convert even half of Utah’s fleet in the next 10 years. That rate would only bring about 500,000 electric vehicles by 2032.

“When so much of our carbon emissions come from transportation, nothing feels quite fast enough, but the momentum is undeniable,” said Kelbe Goupil, senior associate of electrification for Utah Clean Energy.

“Utah might be lagging behind other states for EV adoption today, but we have some of the best charging infrastructure in the nation,” Goupil said. “We are primed to become a national leader in EV adoption, and I’m confident that with more education and a few key policy changes, we can become that leader.”

Electric pickup envy

Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah, thinks Ford’s introduction of an electric F-150 pickup truck could be a turning point. “I think the Ford Lightning is an amazing truck and feel that many people will want these things once they become more readily available. I think it’s hard to get one right now, but I do know many people who are dying to grab one.”

Utah is not one of a handful of states, led by California, that have quotas requiring a certain percentage of new cars to be emissions-free. So-called ZEV states tend to get more of the new EVs produced by manufacturers.

It’s going to be hard for Utah to compete with “ZEV” section 177 states in terms of inventory,” Miller said. “ ... But, considering it has become the new normal to have to order a vehicle due to the lack of inventory from Covid problems, it might not be such a big deterrent, because people will be able to get them other places or even special order.”

Tammie Bostick, executive director of Utah Clean Cities, said Utah is between the “innovator” and “early adopter” stages of new technology introduction, meaning it hasn’t yet moved into “early majority” stage where adoption is widespread. But the state is building out the infrastructure to make that move. “I think Utah should do everything it can to support the adoption of clean vehicles, and I think we have.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Building out the infrastructure is key to Utah growing its electric vehicle inventory, say clean energy advocates. Here, cars charge at the electric vehicle charging station at Soldier Hollow Golf Course, in Midway, on Monday, June 20, 2022.

The federal government has rolled out a host of incentives for both companies and individuals to move to cleaner transportation. With the price of new cars so high, Bostick thinks the $4,000 tax incentive for used electric vehicles will be a big driver in Utah’s conversion. “I think it’s a fantastic addition.”

In what is probably the most promising news for Utah’s air quality, cars manufactured in 2017 or sooner are now more than a third of vehicles registered in Utah. That is important because 2017 is when Tier 3 gasoline cars were introduced. When combined with Tier 3 gasoline, they reduce emissions by as much as 80 percent versus old cars and non-Tier 3 fuels. Tier 3 fuels are available at most Utah gas stations.

There was a drop in natural gas vehicles last year. They produce less air pollution than gasoline cars and were once viewed as a promising solution. There were 5,301 CNG vehicles registered in 2021, but that fell to 5,060 in 2022, a 4.8% drop. It continues a trend since 2020, when there were more than 6,000 CNG vehicles registered in Utah.

Notably, the CNG drop does not include heavy trucks. Diesel still dominates heavy trucks, but CNG and electric heavy trucks are small but growing. Those tend to be commercial vehicles in fleets that have their own infrastructure for refueling.

And there are only two hydrogen-powered vehicles registered in Utah: One passenger car and one light truck. Hydrogen, which can be produced and burned without generating greenhouse gasses, has been touted as a green solution for the trucking industry, but it hasn’t materialized here. Unlike California, which has a network of hydrogen stations, there is no hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Utah.

Bostick believes hydrogen-fueled heavy trucks will become more common in Utah. She noted that 70% of U.S. imports move through California, and 40% of those come through Utah. As California trucking turns to more hydrogen, Utah will follow, she said.

Goupil thinks Utah should adopt the “Advanced Clean Trucks Rule.” Six states have adopted the rule, which puts a deadline on converting to clean medium- and heavy-duty trucks. “Adopting the Advanced Clean Trucks rule in Utah would provide a pathway to reduce MHD vehicle emissions, ensure model availability and preserve consumer choice as we switch from diesel to electric vehicles.”

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.