I remember when electric vehicles first began colonizing the gas stations along Interstate 5, the long, open California highway that stretches from the verdant redwoods of the north to the stunted Joshua trees and sun-baked deserts of the south. I would stop to refuel my old Subaru Outback during road trips and watch them charging silently on electric umbilical cords, alien-like against splitting asphalt, neon signs and the smell of diesel lingering in my nostrils.
In 2021, electric vehicles are no longer a futuristic abstraction present only on the West Coast, but an inevitable trend that has extended its reach across the nation to Ohio where they present an opportunity–or perhaps an imperative–for the state to reinvent its economic foundation. While we may mostly think of compact, futuristic-looking cars when talking about electric vehicles, Ohio is paving the way for commercial uses of these vehicles and capitalizing on the infrastructural changes they will bring to communities.
“Auto manufacturing jobs are a cornerstone of our economy now. They’re very important for basically every part of Ohio because the supply chain is spread throughout the state,” Brendan Kelley, director of Drive Electric Ohio, said. “If we’re going to still have a robust auto industry in Ohio, we need to be welcoming electric vehicles.”
Ohio is embracing one area of innovation in particular: the production of electric alternatives to medium and heavy-duty trucks, which accounted for nearly a quarter of the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Increased deliveries during the pandemic have pushed carriers and companies like UPS, FedEx and Amazon to fast-track their transition toward electric fleets. Fledgling companies in Ohio are benefitting from this shift; the stock price for the Loveland-based company Workhorse, which focuses on producing drone-integrated electric delivery vans, for example, grew nearly sevenfold in 2020. In 2012, UPS established a development and commercial partnership with Workhorse and has since ordered over a thousand delivery trucks from the company.
Workhorse also has a technology licensing agreement with the startup Lordstown Motors and owns 10% of the company. In 2019, Lordstown Motors purchased the former General Motors (GM) production facility in the manufacturing town of Lordstown, Ohio. GM had closed the facility the previous year, leaving 1,500 workers to relocate or find new jobs. According to a 2020 company press release, however, Lordstown Motors expects to increase its workforce to 1,500 employees by the end of the year and begin production of its all-electric Endurance pickup truck in September.
Director of the Midwest Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council Samantha Williams said that Ohio is also well-positioned to become a major battery production hub.
In early December of 2019, GM and the South Korean company LG Chem announced their plan to form a joint venture–Ultium Cells LLC–and together invest $2.3 billion to build one of the world’s largest electric vehicle battery production facilities in Lordstown. GM and LG Chem aim to employ 1,100 team members for this venture and expect to eventually mass-produce battery cells that will cost below $100 per kilowatt-hour (batteries cost over $1,100 per kilowatt-hour a decade ago and are currently priced around $137).
Ohio is also home to companies already well established in the battery supply chain. In 2012, for instance, the German chemical company Badische Anilin & Sodafabrik opened a cathode materials production facility in Elyria, Ohio with the help of a $24.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (a cathode is the positive component of a battery cell indicated by the + sign on ordinary batteries you can buy at the store). The Maumee, Ohio-based company Dana Corporation has also undertaken research and development projects to improve thermal management systems that help maximize the performance and lifespan of batteries.
In addition, several companies in Ohio have built businesses around selling electric vehicle charging equipment, such as the Dublin-based EVunited and Cincinnati-based Electrada, Kelley said. He added that charging stations themselves are an asset for other groups and organizations in cities across Ohio; some local government facilities and businesses have installed these stations as a way to attract customers and generate economic activity. Malerie Holte, events and communications coordinator at Drive Electric Ohio, said that she hears frequent mention of the Maumee Bay Brewing Company, a local business in Toledo that offers charging and has become a destination point for electric vehicle drivers.
Ohio faces some challenges, however, in supply and demand for electric vehicles.
According to a 2020 DriveOhio study, of the 42 total electric vehicle models available on the market today, only 22 of these are available in Ohio. Other models have to be ordered through out-of-state dealers.
As a non-zero emission vehicle state, Ohio is currently lacking in legislative initiatives to expand this supply.
Williams suggested that embracing stricter emissions standards such as those in California, which have been adopted by 14 other states and the District of Columbia, would help increase the supply–and consequently the adoption–of electric vehicles in Ohio by setting a threshold requirement that would obligate automakers to sell more of them.
“These standards put the onus on the auto industry to make sure a certain percent of the cars it sells are electric vehicles,” she said. “This policy has not been adopted by Ohio, but it’s proven extremely effective.”
Demand for electric vehicles, however, is admittedly low in Ohio; according to EVAdoption, a website that analyzes industry trends, electric vehicles only made up 0.74% of Ohio’s market share in 2018, with 6,510 electric vehicles registered in the state as of the end of the year.
Williams said that range anxiety–the concern that drivers may have regarding whether or not their car can make it to the next charging station–and a lack of adequate charging infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, are significant barriers to increased adoption. To mitigate this concern, companies and organizations in Ohio have sought to expand infrastructure, focusing in particular on installing Direct Current Fast Charging (DCFC) stations, which add range to vehicles more quickly than other types of chargers, along Interstate, U.S. Highway and State Route corridors.
DriveOhio estimates that adding these critical charging stations will cost a hefty $2.3 to $4.4 million for the state. About half these costs, however, apply to counties that are eligible for funding from the 2016 Volkswagen settlement, which could reduce installation costs to $1.1 to $2.0 million.
The upfront costs of purchasing an electric vehicle present another obstacle, Williams said. Electric vehicles have yet to reach cost parity with traditional cars but are projected to do so by 2025 for passenger cars and by 2030 for medium and heavy-duty trucks as batteries become increasingly more affordable. Williams also noted that as adoption increases, more electric vehicles are entering the secondary market with marked-down prices.
While initial costs are high, studies show that consumers save in the long term. According to a report by the American Automobile Association, driving 15,000 miles in an electric vehicle costs around $546 while the cost of gas for traveling the same distance would be over double this amount.
But ultimately, low demand may be attributed primarily to a lack of awareness regarding the advantages and availability of electric vehicles, Managing Director of Communications and Policy at DriveOhio Luke Stedke said. He pointed out that electric vehicle adoption in Ohio has been most successful in Columbus, where the government-sponsored initiative Smart Columbus has undertaken extensive campaigns to educate consumers about the benefits of electric vehicles.
Overcoming this lack of awareness and getting on board with electric vehicles is critical for the future of Ohio’s automotive industry, according to Williams.
“If the Midwest wants to continue to be a driving force in the auto industry, we really need to step it up,” she said.
Stedke echoed this sentiment: “We want to show the electric vehicle industry that Ohio is open for business.”