Ask Eartha: Are electric cars practical in the High Country?

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,

My trusty station wagon is on its last legs, and I’m starting to think about getting a new car. I’ve seen a few people in the county driving electric cars. Are these really a practical option for a high alpine environment? What if I don’t have solar panels at home?

– Mark, Frisco

Mark, your questions are just in time for National Drive Electric Week! Celebrated this Sept. 9-17, this event brings awareness to the increasing popularity and practicality of electric vehicles. Globally, there are now over 2 million EVs on the road, compared to virtually none just five years ago. And here in the U.S., EV sales have grown over 30 percent in the last four years. These days, most major car companies offer all-electric or hybrid models (or both), with several new models set to hit the market in the next few years. It would seem that the Age of the Electric Car is dawning, and as your fellow community members can attest, these cars aren’t just for flat-landers. But before you forsake the gas pump for good, here are a few things to consider.


A plug-in hybrid is a car that runs on both gas and electric power. The electric motor will cover a certain distance (typically between 30-40 miles), after which the combustion motor will kick in. All-electric models rely solely on energy stored in batteries; there’s no gas engine to save you in an emergency. This is an important point to consider when you’re shopping. Think about how many miles you drive in an average day. If you regularly go more than 60–70 miles without stopping, a plug-in hybrid might be the best option for you, unless you can afford the higher cost of a longer-range EV.


All cars — no matter how they’re powered — lose efficiency in extreme temperatures. In cold weather, fuel economy in gas-powered motors can be reduced by 20 percent or more. EVs suffer range loss because the cabin heating system is powered by the same source as the drive train. One study found that cold weather can impact EV range by up to 25 percent. But if the distance of your daily commute can accommodate a decrease in range, you won’t have to worry about running out of power.

And what about snowy conditions? Many EV models are two-wheel drive, but some, like Teslas, are all-wheel drive. However, EV drivers from snowy states and countries report that a great pair of snow tires will do the trick in most conditions.


All electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles purchased since 2010 are eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits. Note that credits only decrease your total tax owed. If your tax liability is less than the credit amount, you won’t get money back. Through 2020, Colorado is offering a tax credit of $5,000 for EV and plug-in hybrid passenger vehicles. Recently, Colorado simplified the credit process by allowing dealers to offer an instant $5,000 discount if the customer waives the right to the credit. Keep in mind that credits don’t apply to used vehicles, and after 2020, the value of the Colorado credit will decline.


Is an EV still an environmentally friendly investment if your home isn’t 100 percent powered by renewables? You bet it is, because whether you know it or not, your home is partially powered by renewable energy already. Right now, 25 percent of the electricity in Xcel Energy’s grid is generated by wind and solar, and this number is set to increase over the next several years as Xcel adds more renewable capacity in Colorado. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, when lifetime emissions are taken into account, EVs are 50 percent cleaner than gas-powered cars. If you know the exact model you’re interested in, UCS has an online calculator that can estimate emissions per mile of an EV compared to a conventional car.

Here in Summit County, HC3 is celebrating National Drive Electric Week with an EV Showcase. Head to the parking lot at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco between 6:30–7:30 p.m. on Sept. 13, where you’ll have the opportunity to meet with the locals you’ve spotted behind the wheels of all-electric and hybrid cars and ask them about all things EV.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at info@highcountryconservation.org.


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