By Leah Romero, New Mexico In Depth
Interstate 25 runs roughly 450 miles through the heart of New Mexico from Las Cruces through Raton and into Colorado. In an electric vehicle, drivers would be hard pressed to find the fast-charging stations they need to make it seamlessly across the state unless they were driving the very newest or most expensive models. And even then, a large swath of rural New Mexico remains out of reach.
That’s a problem for state officials who want to promote the use of electric vehicles as one way to reduce the climate changing greenhouse gases emitted in New Mexico.
According to a report released in November by the New Mexico Interagency Climate Change Task Force, the state’s production of greenhouse gases is about 70% more per capita than the national average — 31 tons per person per year compared to 18 tons. And almost a quarter of New Mexico greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 came from transportation, surpassed only by the oil and gas industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency found that in 2017, transportation in the U.S. emitted roughly 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — the largest sector producing the most carbon dioxide emissions that year.
Spurring adoption of cleaner vehicles makes sense, considering many experts say electric vehicles are the wave of the future. There’s growing consumer demand nationally for vehicles that would help reduce emissions contributing to climate change. The International Energy Agency predicts 125 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide by 2030.
New Mexico is part of the Regional Electric Vehicle Plan for the West, which is an agreement among eight western states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah, to create an Intermountain West Electric Vehicle Corridor. With the agreement to install charging infrastructure along major transportation corridors in each state, EV owners will have less difficulty making it across New Mexico on I-40, and most likely I-25 eventually.
But the state is still years away from widespread adoption of electric vehicles, hindered in part by a lack of fast charging infrastructure that helps drivers make it across the state’s rural byways.
Alaric Babej, a product development manager at Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), said the company predicts 10% of new cars sold in the state will be electric by the end of the next decade, compared to about 18% at the national level.
EJ Gonzales, a salesman at Borman Honda in Las Cruces, said demand for electric vehicles in the city is low. A customer wanting to trade in an electric vehicle may be out of luck because the dealership would have a hard time turning around and selling it.
“I’d say one out of every thousand [customers] will probably ask for something that has the electric,” Gonzales said. “Usually the people that are buying the electric cars now will go to a Tesla dealership in Phoenix or they’ll just order it and have it shipped to their house.”
Babej said New Mexico’s future demand seems low because the national projection is skewed by states like California that require auto manufacturers to stock zero emission vehicles, among other “clean vehicle” laws.
But moves are being made in New Mexico to incentivize electric vehicles and other “clean” transportation options. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in September a goal to pass new fuel economy standards in 2020 that exceed federal requirements. And early this year, the state Legislature passed a law that requires public utilities to submit plans to the Public Regulation Commission by 2021 for how they will expand infrastructure for electric transportation. The bill instructs the PRC to take into account how the plans will increase access to use of electric vehicles by underserved communities.
Mona Trempe of Las Cruces has owned a Tesla Model X since 2017 and her husband has a Tesla Model S. She said she doesn’t generally have problems charging her electric vehicle away from home and would recommend them to others. There are now around a dozen Tesla drivers in Las Cruces, Trempe said.
“New Mexico seemed like the perfect place to have an electric car because we also have solar panels on our house,” Trempe said. “And it [the Tesla] seemed the perfect environmental solution.”
There are more charging stations for Tesla vehicles in New Mexico than other brands because the company installs charging stations specifically for Teslas, and special adapters can be used to fuel the cars at other charging stations as well.
Trempe maps trips outside of Las Cruces to make sure she can get to the charging stations she needs along the way.
But still, even though she gets 235 to 295 miles from the battery in her 2017 Tesla Model X and has more charging stations available to her than those with other types of electric vehicles, she encounters obstacles to road trips.
For one, not all of the chargers are fast. Trempe said most of the non-Tesla public chargers she has come across in New Mexico take up to an hour to charge vehicles enough for just 20 miles, meaning it takes longer to reach a full charge. Fast charging stations, on the other hand, typically will power an electric vehicle to 80% capacity in just 30 minutes.
She can travel to places like Cloudcroft, about 87 miles from Las Cruces, and up to Santa Fe, where she can charge her vehicle for a return trip, but some areas of the state, like Carlsbad, are still not manageable for her in an electric vehicle.
The lack of access to some places, particularly rural communities, was a primary motivation behind the new law passed this year, House Bill 521, spurring utilities to develop plans for installing more electric charging stations around the state.
State Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, who co-sponsored the legislation, grew up in southeast New Mexico. She said the legislation was about equity. “I actually believe that this is the way of the future…and so I didn’t want rural communities to be left behind,” she said.
And she said the law would help combat climate change by reducing vehicle emissions. “This helps us in terms of our own transition away from, hopefully, oil and gas extraction,” Rubio said.
State Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, who represents the rural, eastern counties of Curry, Quay and Union, said he co-sponsored the bill to help electric cooperatives in his area reduce overall energy costs and increase efficiency, which would happen if more electricity was being used at night to charge electric vehicles at home.
Woods also said he was concerned about making sure the farm and ranch areas he represents aren’t excluded.
“I live out in the country, and I’m assuming one day those might be used out in the country, but I don’t know,” Woods said. “Those charging stations, I never see getting put out in the rural areas.”
Max Baumhefner, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council who served as a policy expert about electric vehicles during the 2019 legislative session, said the new law asks utilities to come up with incentives and investments to accelerate the use of electric vehicles.
“It’s not just about public charging stations for passenger cars. It’s about plugging in transit buses, school buses, delivery trucks, etc.,” Baumhefner told New Mexico In Depth.
Matthew Jaramillo, manager of government affairs and community relations for PNM, the state’s largest utility, said the company is on track to submit a plan to the PRC in early 2020.
PNM has been working with local governments, customers and charging network companies, among others, to receive feedback on the plan ensuring it “meets customers’ needs and supports electrification statewide,” he said.
Lujan Grisham’s clean energy car regulations will play a large part in making more electric cars available to New Mexican consumers, Baumhefner said.
“That’s what New Mexico is doing by adopting the clean car standards, which force automakers to sell zero emission vehicles in the states that adopt those regulations,” Baumhefner said. “If you look at the states that adopt the clean car rules, that’s where clean cars are sold.”
Greater adoption of electric vehicles statewide, especially the bus and truck fleets Baumhefner mentioned, will be helped by a stockpile of cash New Mexico received from a 2016 national settlement with Volkswagen over claims it violated the federal Clean Air Act. New Mexico’s portion of the settlement is almost $18 million. The state’s plan for using the funds prioritizes purchasing alternative fuel or all-electric vehicles to replace diesel powered vehicles.
Leah Romero is New Mexico In Depth’s academic fellow at New Mexico State University for the 2019/2020 school year.
This article first appeared on New Mexico In Depth and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.