E-vehicle rebate program gets lifeline  

RICHARD K. LODGE/Staff photoA car charges at one of the public charging stations in the Harris Street lot in Newburyport.

BOSTON — A popular state program that gives rebates to consumers who purchase electric and fuel cell vehicles is getting a new lease on life.

The program, which has doled out nearly $30 million since 2014, stopped accepting applications for purchases of cars made after Sept. 30. The Baker administration said the program had run out of money.

But the rebates would be revived under a supplemental budget bill working its way through Beacon Hill. On Tuesday, the House Ways & Means Committee approved a $715 million spending bill that would reauthorize the Massachusetts Offers Rebates for Electric Vehicles program for two years. The plan would tap into money from a regional cap-and-trade program to cover the rebates.

Rebates would be limited to $32 million per year, according to the proposal, which requires approval by the House and Senate as well as Gov. Charlie Baker's signature.

Environmentalists welcomed the move, saying the subsidies are crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say contribute to a warming planet.

"Passenger vehicles are the largest contributing source of transportation emissions, and incentives like EV consumer rebates are proven and essential ways to encourage people to make the switch to cleaner vehicles," said Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All campaign.

On Tuesday, the Legislature's Transportation Committee heard testimony on several bills aimed at expanding use of electric cars.

One proposal, backed by Reps. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, and Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, would reauthorize the rebate program for low-emission and electric vehicle purchases up to $75,000 and create a new rebate offering a $400 discount on those vehicles purchased from local auto dealerships.

The proposal would also provide incentives to regional transit authorities to convert buses from diesel to electric.

The state is required to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% of 1990s levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050, to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, a federal law the state adopted years ago. A 2016 ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court mandated stepped-up efforts to hit those benchmarks.

Roughly 40% of the state's carbon emissions come from trucks and personal vehicles, according to the Department of Transportation.

$30M in rebates

Over five years, the rebate program for low-emissions vehicles has given 14,473 rebates worth a total of $30 million, according to the Department of Energy Resources.

The vehicle brand for which owners have received the most tax rebates is Tesla, with 5,328 issued. That's followed by Chevrolet, Toyota and Nissan.

The rebate originally was up to $2,500 on the purchase of new electric vehicles, but state officials reduced the cap to $1,500 beginning this year. Officials also limited the rebates to electric vehicles powered by batteries or fuel cells, removing plug-in hybrids and zero-emission motorcycles from the program.

Expectations that the program would end this year prompted a surge in rebates in December, with more than 1,500 requests totaling $3.4 million. So far this year, the number of requests has fallen dramatically.

In 2016, Baker pumped $14 million into the program and has since approved legislation expanding the availability of charging stations for plug-in vehicles, among other initiatives. His administration asked for more money in the budget to keep the program going, but lawmakers didn't approve it.

In addition to setting aside money in the supplemental budget, lawmakers added a provision reauthorizing the rebates onto House Speaker Robert DeLeo's GreenWorks omnibus environmental bill, which was approved in July. But it could take months before a final version of that legislation is settled.

The state hopes to have 300,000 electric vehicles on the streets by 2025, but to date only 18,000 are registered, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

A federal tax credit for $7,500 is available on electric vehicles, excluding Tesla and General Motors, which have met the threshold of selling 200,000 cars to begin rolling back the rebates, according to the Internal Revenue Service. For those vehicle brands, the rebate was capped at $3,750 earlier this year.

Republican President Donald Trump has proposed killing the federal tax credit, arguing that it would save taxpayers an estimated $2.5 billion over the next decade.

Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program at Conservation Law Foundation, also welcomed efforts to keep the state's rebate program going but said officials need to take bolder steps to get more electric vehicles on the road.

"This as a step forward, but we need bigger and longer-term solutions to fund the de-carbonization of our transportation sector," Cahn said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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