VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — An electrically-charged debate may dominate this year’s legislative session in Richmond.
Republicans have promised to repeal a mandate passed by the Democratic majority in 2021, which would ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles in the next 13 years.
But if the law holds, many wonder if Virginia would be ready to flip the switch.
Bob Barbato, who owns Express Auto Electric in Virginia Beach, has been solving mechanical and technical riddles for four decades.
Barbato is always looking for specialists to fix complex electrical systems that make up 21st century rides. But he said a wholesale switch from internal combustion engines to battery-powered electric vehicles is premature.
“I personally like them,” Barbato said. “I don’t own one yet. I want to one day. But I see them more as a novelty than a necessity car.”
But Virginia is now on the road to electric vehicles, after the General Assembly passed a law under the previous administration that would ban the sale of new gas and diesel powered cars by 2035. It would also require that Virginia follow California emission standards.
For Karla Smith of Norfolk, who recently bought a Tesla, it’s mostly about reducing carbon emissions and the satisfaction of using electricity to power her car.
“It’s so nice not going to a gas station anymore,” Smith said.
The fuel for her Model 3 comes from a charging station in the garage, which also happens to be powered by solar panels lining her home’s roof. Smith also likes the growing network of charging stations she can find on the screen of her on-board computer.
“If you enter a destination that’s further away it will tell you when you need to stop,” Smith said, “get off the highway and how you get there and charge your car.”
To build more charging stations on major highways, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sheppard Miller said the commonwealth is getting $100 million in federal funds.
“We’ve been working on our EV plan, which has been accepted by the federal government,” Miller said. “So we’ll be introducing electrification on the corridors with charging every 50 miles. We’ll start there and we’ll see how it goes in terms of demand, and then we’ll move into other corridors as it makes sense to do so.”
Electric cars also make sense to those who favor stronger environmental regulations to reduce carbon emissions.
“And absolutely, this is one piece of the puzzle,” said Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “This alone is not going to do it, but without chipping away at things like our transportation tailpipe pollution, which is our largest source, we’re never going to get there.”
But 2035 is 13 years away. Is it enough time to count down to zero emissions?
Old Dominion University economist Bob McNab said technology has been moving quickly in the 21st century.
“If the market continues to innovate, like it is now, if battery tech gets more powerful and cheaper, and that’s the way car manufacturers are leaning, then by 2035 this may not be much of an argument,” McNab said.
But the argument against the 2035 mandate comes from Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who in a recent statement said: “I am already at work to prevent this ridiculous edict from being forced on Virginians. California’s out-of-touch laws have no place in our Commonwealth.”
Barbato has yet to decide if he wants to service electric vehicles in the future. But he believes the market for conventional vehicles is still healthy.
“So let’s go ahead 10 years,” Barbato said. “Where are they (electric vehicles) going to be? Are you going to buy a used one, with a 170 [thousand miles] on it? Probably not. Those gas cars are going to be around for a long time.”
And though gasoline and diesel powered vehicles are not taking the off-ramp from our auto landscape anytime soon, the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association supports Virginia tying itself to California’s mandate that all new car sales be zero emission vehicles by 2035.
The group’s spokesman, Jeff Kelley, declined an on-camera interview for this story, but he referenced a blog written by the group’s president Don Hall, in which he said Virginia should be “in the right position to win in the coming EV revolution.”
Meanwhile, the current transportation secretary said Virginia should ease into the transition.
“The whole markets are emerging. They’re changing,” Miller said. “So we have to be adaptable to see how it morphs and flows. How much penetration will electric vehicles get? What hydrogen will do? There’s just lots of technology out there. Some of that is going to settle out.”