Austin leads the electric car race in Texas

Austin leads the electric car race in Texas

Austin is leading the transition to electric vehicles in Texas.

More than 2.1% of registered vehicles in Travis County are now battery-powered cars and trucks, registration data obtained through the Texas Public Information Act shows. The figure does not include hybrids. Travis County’s electric vehicle adoption rate is the highest among the five largest counties in the state.

Austin Energy says more than half of the electric vehicles on Austin’s roads are Teslas. The electric car giant is headquartered in Travis County.

A 2% adoption rate may not sound like a lot, but it indicates “a big change that has happened recently,” said Gil Tal, a leading expert on electric vehicles who runs the Center for Research on Electric Vehicles at the University of California, Davis.

By comparison, California — which leads the nation in electric vehicle adoption — has an EV ownership rate of close to 3%. The state has spent heavily promoting electric vehicles and plans to ban the sale of new gasoline-only vehicles by 2035.

Nick Allen and David Bonatti wait at a Tesla charging station in a parking garage on South Congress Street. Tesla is the most popular electric vehicle in Austin, accounting for more than half of the electric vehicles on the road.

Williamson County is not far from Travis. More than 1.5% of registered vehicles are electric in the province, and residents have been snapping up EVs more quickly. For example, more than 5% of new vehicle registrations in Williamson County in September were electric. In Travis County, it was 3%.

Hays County has been slower to transition to electric vehicles. Records show that 0.8% of cars and trucks in Hays County are battery powered.

In the state’s largest population centers — the counties in which Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio are located — electric vehicles account for less than 1% of vehicles on the road, Texas Department of Motor Vehicles data show.

In absolute numbers, Travis County was in close competition with Harris County for the most electric vehicles in Texas. Each of them had about 20 thousand. But Harris County has 3.4 million registered cars and trucks, more than three times the number in Travis County.

Electric cars are very popular in Austin, in part because the city’s large technology industry encourages early adopters with more disposable income to afford the high prices. The region’s deep-rooted environmental community was trading gas pumps for port shipping as well.

“People have been interested in sustainable energy and going green for some time in Austin,” said Aaron Choate, president of the Austin chapter of the nonprofit Electric Vehicle Association. “Once people got the hang of that, they started switching to electric cars, and I think they will continue to do that.”

Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing facility in southeastern Travis County represents a strong presence of companies promoting electric vehicles. The plant now employs “more than” 15,000 workers and will spend $750,000 this year on electric vehicle education programs, Tesla officials told Travis County commissioners last month, far more than what is required under an agreement with the county to save Tesla millions each year in property taxes.

Transportation remains the largest source of air pollution in Austin and is a significant contributor to global warming greenhouse gases. The city has therefore adopted policies to encourage electric vehicle ownership, for example, by subsidizing the installation of charging stations.

But Austin still cannot achieve her own goals.

The city’s climate plan, adopted just two years ago, calls for 3% of cars on the road to be electric by 2023.

The path to electricity is full of challenges. One of the biggest barriers is the cost of purchasing an electric car.

Electric cars are not as cheap as gas cars yet

In an unassuming strip mall on South Congress Street, Moment Motor Co. It services the highest level of the electric vehicle market, converting collectible cars and trucks into classic electric vehicles.

The garage’s mechanics remove and replace parts from vintage luxury cars from yesteryear: a 1963 Corvette Stingray, a 1960 Ford F-250, and a 1948 Chevrolet Stylemaster.

A heavily tattooed man lies on his back, looking under the dashboard of a Mercedes.  The car's seats and interior upholstery have been removed.

Aharon Adams, a conversion technician at Moment Motors, changes the heater system wiring on a 1970 Mercedes 280SL.

Parked outside the garage, a red 1988 Porsche 911, once the epitome of gasoline-powered performance, has been equipped with an electric motor that provides greater acceleration.

“Oh, yeah, much faster,” explained company founder Mark Davis, a former tech employee who turned his passion for cars into a business in 2017. “Physics is on the side of electric motors.”

Electric motors provide instant torque and instantaneous delivery of maximum twisting force to the wheels. That’s why the electric Ford F-150 can go from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds, faster than some gas-powered Porsche 911s.

“There’s an environmental reason for a lot of people (to buy electric cars). There’s a unique aspect that a lot of people have,” Davis said. “But in the end there is a performance aspect. And I think that’s the case with electricity.”

Moment Motors prices are as extreme as the vehicles get. The company charges between $50,000 to $150,000 to convert a car from gas to electric. This does not include the car, some of which are worth more than the conversion cost.

Mark Davis stands in his shop, arms folded, surrounded by classic cars being converted into electric vehicles.  Some have their headdresses.

Mark Davis founded Moment Motor Co. to convert old cars into electric vehicles. Transfers can cost up to $150,000.

Back at ground level, the average cost of a new non-luxury electric vehicle is about 45% more than the cost of a similar gas-fueled vehicle last year, the US Department of Transportation says. Electric vehicles can save money in the long run on fuel and maintenance costs, but they still require a higher upfront investment.

“There aren’t a lot of (electric) cars yet that will be announced that will be less than that, let’s say $38,000-$39,000,” said Caleb Miller, an editor at the site. Car and driver The magazine that closely follows what is expected at dealerships in the coming years.

For example, Toyota’s battery-powered compact crossover, the bZ4X, starts at $42,000, nearly double the price of a new Corolla. The company had a catalog of electric cars on display this month at Electrify Expo, an electric car show that attracted thousands of curious enthusiasts to the Circuit of the Americas.

Lexus employees and attendees at the Electrify Expo, an exhibition of new electric cars, trucks, bikes and scooters, explore various electric and hybrid Lexus vehicles

Thousands turned out for an electric car show this month at the Circuit of the Americas. “The popularity of electric vehicles in Austin has skyrocketed,” PJ Burtwell, CEO of Electrify Expo, said in a statement after the festival.

The federal government will soften the blow. Most new electric vehicle purchases qualify for a tax credit of up to $7,500. Starting this year, the IRS began offering a $4,000 credit for used electric vehicles. The tax credit can only be claimed once in the life of the car. So you can’t get relief if the previous owner of your used electric car already has it.

Higher interest rates reduce those federal incentives by penalizing consumers with higher monthly payments. The average interest rate in Texas is now more than 7% for new cars and above 12% for used cars, according to the auto website Edmunds — among the highest rates since 2015.

But Austin’s climate policy calls for more than a third of the city’s cars to be electric by the end of the decade. Council members said they would keep up the pressure.

“Certainly, if we could make it easier for people to recharge, as easily as they had to fill their gas tanks, I think their reluctance to switch to electric vehicles would decrease,” the city council said. Member Leslie Paul, who chairs the committee that oversees Austin Energy.

The city-owned company has more than 1,600 outlets in its charging network. But only 30 of them are DC fast charging stations, which can refuel a car in minutes. The rest are called Level 2 chargers. Those take hours.

Austin Energy offers unlimited refueling on Level 2 chargers for a flat fee of $4.17 per month. High-power DC fast chargers cost 21 cents per minute. It takes 20 minutes to an hour to charge the battery to 80%, at which point people are advised to unplug it as charging slows down significantly.

Depending on the car, a single charge can allow it to go anywhere from about 100 to 400 miles.

A hand separates the charger from a black Tesla

Austin Energy’s charging network has 30 DC fast chargers that can fuel a vehicle in minutes, but the city could get 80 more chargers if a $15 million federal grant is awarded.

“I want to see more. I want to see fast chargers,” Paul said of the city’s chargers. “There should be enough so you don’t have to wait in line to be able to deliver.”

Austin Energy has applied for a $15 million federal grant to install more electric vehicle chargers, including 80 DC fast chargers. The award is expected to be announced by the end of the year.

Most people charge their cars at home. Austin Energy will deduct up to half the cost of installing the charger.

But more than half of Austin’s residents are renters, according to census data, so charging at home may not be an option.

Austin Energy is offering a limited-time discount of up to 80% off the cost of installing electric vehicle chargers in multifamily properties such as apartment buildings. The program is still in its infancy and targets exclusively electric car sharing programs in partnership with affordable non-profit organizations.

The last time Austin Energy offered a rebate for installing chargers at multifamily properties in 2015, only 20 owners participated.

The utility says it wants to establish charging stations in neighborhoods that have been historically neglected. But it won’t have a map showing ideal charging station locations until the middle of next year at the earliest.

Fed money flow

View of the Texas State Capitol Building

Texas lawmakers voted this year to improve access to electric vehicle chargers, but they also imposed a new $200 annual registration fee on electric vehicle owners.

Inside the Texas Capitol, lawmakers voted this year to regulate electric vehicle charging stations like gas pumps. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation will conduct inspections of the chargers and set up a complaint process for consumers.

Lawmakers angered electric vehicle owners by imposing a new $200 annual registration fee in September. People who buy new electric cars have to pay two years up front. This money is supposed to replace lost gasoline taxes that fund road construction and maintenance.

But the Texas Legislature also passed a bipartisan law aimed at ensuring the state has enough chargers to allow someone to drive from border to border in an electric car, even through rural or low-income areas.

“Republican leadership is taking a look at this issue and saying, ‘We need to put the building blocks in place.’ “They can see Change is coming.”

The federal government is pumping $407 million into Texas over five years, more than any other state, to establish charging stations along major highways. The money comes from a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021.

“They’re also looking to big corporations and big manufacturing plants,” Smith said of the state’s political leadership. “They look at this as the next big wave of industrial development and say, ‘We need to be prepared and able to get our share.’”

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