'Did It Work?': Burlington Electric's Vehicle Rebates

May 12, 2019

In 2017, officials gathered in Burlington to announce new incentives and rebates aimed at getting Vermonters to buy electric cars. The idea was to make electric vehicles more affordable for more people. But since then, how many low- or middle-income customers actually bought electric cars with those rebates?

VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.

The Initiative

On a bright, sunny morning in Burlington in October 2017, leaders of electric utilities, a car dealership, Gov. Phil Scott and Mayor Miro Weinberger lined up behind a podium in the parking lot of Burlington Electric Department.

Electric vehicles and a charging station in Burlington, where utilities and car dealerships announced new incentives for electric cars in October 2017.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR File

All these officials were there to announce new incentives and rebates aimed at getting Vermonters of all income levels to buy electric cars.

"We need to make sure that low- and moderate-income Vermonters are able to access every part of the energy revolution," said Neal Lunderville, who was general manager of Burlington Electric at the time. "And electric vehicles are one very tangible way where they can save money and do good for the environment."

In the first year, Burlington Electric spent nearly $40,000 on its electric vehicle rebate program, with the promise to spend more in the years to come.

Here's what the company began offering in 2017: if you buy a new all-electric car or plug-in hybrid, and you qualify as "low or moderate-income," you can get an $1,800 rebate. They also offered a smaller rebate for customers above that income bracket.

What Happened

Since 2017, only three low or-moderate income Burlington Electric customers got the highly touted rebate.

One of the three was Linda Provost.

Linda Provost, of Burlington, is one of only three customers that took advantage of a $1,800 electric vehicle rebate offer from Burlington Electric Department since the initiative was announced in 2017.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

Provost lives in the Old North End, and we visited her back in February. She’s semi-retired, but still does some freelance work and runs a bed-and-breakfast out of her home. We walked out to her car — a 2017 Chevy Bolt — parked in the driveway.

Provost is leasing this car for about $250 a month, plus she spent about $1,200 to buy and install an EV charger. Her Bolt is a shiny, compact hatchback: "I love this car," she told us.

But Provost said, for the most part, she doesn’t really take it very far.

"Ninety percent of my driving is within 50 miles," Provost said. "In the summertime, I get about 350 mile range. In the wintertime, it's about 128 [miles]."

According to Provost, that mileage difference has to do with the cold.

"The battery is always keeping itself between 68 and 72 degrees," she said, "so that’s what uses up energy in the wintertime."

Provost is getting to one issue that’s kept many people skeptical of electric cars: the range they can drive before the battery runs out.

Linda Provost's Chevy Bolt, pictured in her Burlington driveway back in February. "Ninety percent of my driving is within 50 miles," Provost said.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

Another issue is price.

Provost said she really wanted to get an electric car — she’s concerned about climate change — but she wouldn’t have leased the Bolt without what she says was a great deal she received from the dealer.

"And the rebate just really helped," Provost said.

Given that only three people have signed up, despite all the hype, we wanted to know if Burlington Electric feels the rebate program is a success.

"I consider it a starting point really," said Darren Springer, the utility's new manager. "I think we want to do much, much more in this space. We want to make it so that every customer who is interested in electric vehicles can access them."

Springer said the rebate is not just about helping low-income people join the energy revolution — it’s also to help Burlington Electric meet a state mandate.

"We offer this under Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard, Tier III, which essentially says to utilities: we want you to reduce fossil fuel use and emissions in the heating sector and in the transportation sector," Springer explained.

And if they don't? At a certain level, Burlington Electric would have to pay the state, Springer said.

Darren Springer, the head of Burlington Electric, said the company's rebate is not just about helping low-income people join the energy revolution - it's also to help Burlington Electric meet a state mandate.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

According to BED, beyond the three low or moderate-income customers who used the $1,800 rebate, another 77 people with higher incomes have used a lower rebate. That’s a total of more than $85,000 in ratepayer money spent on helping customers buy electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.

And as one of those customers, Provost said it's worked for her. She wants to do her part to combat climate change, and she feels like she is doing something.

"I feel a little virtuous," she said with a laugh. "But, if I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t be able to feel virtuous."

Did It Work?

More new electric vehicles are on the road, but the number of low- and moderate-income Vermonters that were helped by this Burlington Electric program was kind of miniscule.  

Now, Burlington Electric isn’t the only utility to offer this kind of program. Green Mountain Power has several incentives for electric vehicles, including similar offer that provides a rebate, with an extra amount for low or moderate-income customers. According to the utility, well over 400 GMP customers have used its incentives since the launched in 2017. 41 customers have used the low or moderate income rebate.

This legislative session, Gov. Phil Scott has proposed spending $1.5 million on new electric vehicle incentives.

But Rob Roper, head of the Libertarian-leaning Ethan Allen Institute, is no fan of programs like these when they use ratepayer or taxpayer funds.

"If people want to buy electric vehicles, great. I mean, you know some of these cars are really cool, and I think the technology will eventually take off, but this should be a decision that's made by individual people," Roper said. "And for the state to come along and say, 'I’m going to tax you, Peter to put Paul in a Tesla,' that does not seem like a just use of government power or a fair use of taxpayer funds."

However, utility executives at BED and GMP argue that rebates are a way of accelerating adoption of new technology and helping Vermont reduce its carbon footprint.

Credit Meg Malone / VPR

While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of taxpayer money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.