Pennsylvania looks to join the Zero-Emission Vehicle program, expanding access to electric vehicles.


In February 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced several actions to support electric vehicle use in the commonwealth. Among them: a proposal to “establish a requirement for automakers to include light-duty electric vehicles as a percentage of their model offerings.” With this announcement, Pennsylvania took its first step towards joining the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program.

The ZEV program, which 13 states thus far have chosen to adopt, is a regulation that requires automakers to deploy clean, emission-free vehicles, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It sets a percentage of light-duty auto sales that must come from zero-emission electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, a share that increases over time. Automakers must reach a threshold of ZEV credits based on in-state sales, with long-range electric vehicles earning more credits.

Pennsylvania stands to benefit greatly from joining the program and transitioning its transportation sector away from fossil fuel combustion. Our new report with PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, Cleaner Cars for PA, documents these impressive benefits.

Transportation currently produces the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the third-largest share in Pennsylvania, and deep cuts in these emissions will be key to helping the commonwealth meet its climate targets. According to our new report, a strong ZEV program could reduce Pennsylvania’s annual CO2 emissions by 18 million metric tons by 2050 – equivalent to the emissions from burning more than 2 billion gallons of gasoline.The concurrent reduction in air pollution will protect public health by reducing the levels of soot and carbon monoxide in the air, especially important for a state where 4,800 people died prematurely in 2018 due to exposure to air pollution.

The ZEV program originated in California in 1990 with an ambitious early goal: 10% of the vehicles large automakers would produce for sale in 2003 had to be ZEVs. This target was eventually revised downward, but the guarantee of a future market for electric vehicles (EVs) spurred innovation and investment in efficiency and battery technology. This “technology forcing” regulation helped develop high-capacity automotive batteries faster than otherwise would have been the case.

By the 2010s, those advances began to yield vehicles that were cost-competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles and could travel much farther on a single charge. Battery prices fell 89% and the median range of an EV tripled over the decade. Dozens of new EV models – sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs – now hit the market every year. Electric vehicles are no longer speculative technology – they’re affordable, powerful and ready to roll. Even as car sales in the U.S. fell 15% in 2020, EV sales rose.

The speed with which America embraces EVs is important. New cars will stay on the road for decades, so quickly growing the share of EVs sold today will result in big reductions in carbon emissions that threaten our climate and air pollution that threatens our health. But consumers and dealerships aren’t always aware of the recent leaps in EV performance, or the fact that EVs cost less to own over the lifetime of the vehicle.

The ZEV program is an effective policy tool that improves EV access, pushes up the market share of EVs and assures and encourages the development of EV infrastructure. One survey in 2020 found that dealerships in Maryland, a ZEV state, had far greater access to new and popular EV models than those across the state line in Virginia, which did not have the program.

As Pennsylvania begins its journey to joining the ZEV program, other states are also showing an interest in expanding EV access and clearing their air. Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada are in the process of drafting rules similar to the ones underway in Pennsylvania. And these state efforts may soon see a burst of federal support: President Biden’s infrastructure plan may call for $100 billion in new consumer rebates for EVs, and $15 billion more for charging stations. At this point, the big question for states joining the ZEV program isn’t “will it work?” so much as “who’s next?”

Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Media Services