Small-town officials in Western North Carolina agree on one thing: Electric vehicles will be a big part of transportation planning in their communities.
But the specific approach to EVs varies from town to town. Weaverville, for instance, recently added two Mach-Es to its police fleet. Waynesville and Black Mountain have focused on building public charging stations while taking a more cautious approach to buying vehicles.
“We consider the conversion to electric vehicles as a process,” explains Rob Hites, town manager of Waynesville, which recently set a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “We could simply jump headfirst into the market, but we prefer to let other people road test and see if there’s any issues with them before we buy them. But we’re committed to converting as much of our fleet as possible to electric.”
These towns all face challenges as they look for ways to reduce emissions, cut fuel costs and provide an infrastructure that supports EV owners. Concerns run from costs and availability to selling taxpayers on the benefits of EVs. It turns out adopting a new technology comes with some headaches. But officials say the effort of figuring it all out will be worthwhile.
“We know we are in a competition with other similarly sized mountain communities to attract tourists and would-be homebuyers,” says Willam Hite, chair of Waynesville’s Environmental Sustainability Board, which was created to help the town reach its 2050 goal. “The community that conveys to its residents the most climate-forward position, backed up by evidence-based policies, will be best positioned to excel in the 21st century.”
Jury is out
When Ron Davis became Weaverville’s police chief in 2019, he made reducing the department’s fuel costs a priority. To that end, the department added 11 hybrid Ford Police Interceptors to its fleet starting in 2020 and has phased out all but two fully gas powered vehicles.
The hybrids, which use gas and electricity, have allowed the department to cut fuel consumption from about 12,000 gallons a year to 9,000 and saved on maintenance costs, Davis says.
To build on that success, Davis and Town Manager Serena Coffey decided to purchase the two Ford Mustang Mach-Es and a Ford Lighting truck. They believe Weaverville is the first municipality in WNC to have fully electric police vehicles.
“We are a little ahead when it comes to EVs in law enforcement,” Coffey says.
The base cost for the Mach-Es was about $50,000, though Davis says the exact price of each vehicle is hard to calculate because each had to be upfitted with aftermarket radios, radar, modems and more. One was paid for with net profits from the Weaverville ABC store, which is owned and operated by a Town Council-appointed board.
Putting the Mach-Es, which were purchased in September, into service has been a challenge. Until recently, the department had only one charging point available to service two cars. That changed when Weaverville added three charging stations at Town Hall for town government employees.
Also, supply chain issues have made it difficult to equip the vehicles with some necessary features.
“In the EV I’m driving right now, for example, there’s one cable that I was missing from a radio that connects the radio control head to the interface that’s mounted in the trunk,” Davis says. “I couldn’t use the radio. I don’t want to have an officer with a radio that doesn’t work in a car. But that doesn’t have anything to do with it being electric.”
He hopes having the EVs in the fleet this year will decrease fuel consumption to about 7,000 gallons.
Coffey says to make the EVs truly effective for law enforcement purposes, the town will have to find a way to eventually add some Level 3 chargers, also known as DC fast chargers, which can add around 100-250 miles of range in 30-45 minutes. The town’s Level 2 chargers can add about 12-32 miles of driving range for each hour of charging.
“Let’s say our officers come into the office, and there’s an accident down the street,” she says. “They don’t have the time to sit and wait for a couple of hours to get the vehicle charged. So we really need the DC fast chargers, but those are very difficult to come by right now. And then paying for them is even more difficult.”
But despite such challenges, Coffey thinks Weaverville will continue to add EVs as it replaces fleet vehicles.
“I don’t foresee us going backwards,” she says. “We still have some hybrids that are not ready for replacement yet and won’t be for a few more years, but our goal is to eventually be 100% electric, at least in the Police Department.”
Weaverville has no current plans to add public charging stations, Coffey says.
“We found that places like Ingles and … places like that have many of them that are often sitting unused. And so we decided to bypass that,” she explains. “I do expect that we’ll circle back to that at some point in time.”
After Weaverville added its two police EVs, word spread fast to other Western North Carolina municipalities. Officials reached out to Davis and Coffey with questions: How were the police using them? How much did they cost? Were they reliable? How long did it take to charge them?
Waynesville Town Manager Hites was one of the officials who contacted Weaverville. The Haywood County town has had one EV — a Nissan Leaf — and some hybrids in its fleet for years, but those cars are mostly used for town administrative purposes.
Given costs and uncertainties about the technology, Hites says the town is not ready to take the plunge on buying more EVs yet, despite Waynesvilles’s pledge to be emission-free by 2050.
“We’ve been talking about it and are trying to develop a program where we can use police vehicles,” he says. “The issue that we’re facing is that we have to design a way where we can charge the vehicles given that the police officers take them home with them at night.”
The Town of Black Mountain is taking a similarly cautious approach to investing in EVs. In 2022, the Town Council adopted a policy saying purchasing EVs should be a priority when feasible for its fleet. So far, though, the town has not bought any.
“Our goal is to be cognizant of climate change and try to act accordingly, but also not jump so quickly that we end up spending a lot more money and a lot more time on electric vehicles when they’re not quite ready yet,” Town Manager Josh Harrold says. “We do look at electric vehicle pricing as we’re getting our other vehicles, but there’s not a lot out there at this time.”
But despite cautious approaches about buying EVs, Waynesville and Black Mountain are taking other steps.
Over the summer, Waynesville installed a Level 2 charging station at its downtown parking lot and another at the Waynesville Recreation Center. More recently, it activated a fast-charging station at the parking lot. The chargers were paid for through state grants funded by North Carolina’s share of the 2016 Volkswagen settlement, an agreement between the German automaker and the federal government. The agreement resolvedclaims that VW violated the Clean Air Act by selling diesel vehicles that violated EPA standards. As part of the settlement, VW agreed to spend $2 billion to promote the use of zero emission vehicles and infrastructure.
“We didn’t have any public charging stations at all in Waynesville and we thought we needed to fill that gap,” Hites says “Now people that are shopping downtown will have access to get 150, 180 miles in 30 minutes at that [fast] charging station.”
Black Mountain has public charging stations at the Police Department, the Black Mountain Library and the Lakeview Center for Active Aging, Harrold says. The latter two were purchased through VW settlement money.
Hite, the chair of Waynesville’s Environmental Sustainability Board, says even more public charging stations are needed, and Waynesville and other towns should be more willing to spend municipal funds on them.
“Those of us leading the charge know that much more must be done to achieve carbon neutrality, but we are clear-eyed about the steps we must take to get there,” he says. “People come to your town, they want to charge, they want to sort of kill two birds with one stone, they want to eat, shop, and they want to charge their vehicles at the same time.”
The key for all cities and towns going forward is going to be explaining to taxpayers the financial advantages of clean-energy investments such as police cars, he contends.
“There are going to be people who scream that that money could have been spent on police officer salaries or something. And that’s a great opportunity for education because the cost of ownership is going to be less. It’s important that police officers who drive EVs talk to other police officers and police departments about it. I don’t know that the clarion call of climate change has really resonated in a more conservative area, but in small towns like Waynesville, cost savings to the taxpayer is where you can really get the public at large on board.”