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A row of Tesla chargers at a Tesla Supercharger station in Thornton on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles grew fast enough in 2021 that Colorado is on track to meet climate change goals, according to year-end statistics and state Energy Office analysts. 

But the state calculation of last year’s EV market share is 25% higher than the Colorado Auto Dealers Association analysis. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of relatively gas-hogging SUVs and pickup trucks effectively negates the greenhouse gas gains of more EV sales, according to an analysis by International Energy Agency bloggers. 

Whether EV adoption is fast or super-fast, Colorado cannot lose focus on sales incentives and charging station growth in the climate change fight, transportation experts say. With 49,000 EVs on Colorado roads, and a goal of 940,000 by 2030, there’s no letting off the accelerator. 

“A higher and higher percentage of sales year after year after year is what we need to get to our goals, and that’s what we expect to happen,” said Aaron Kressig, transportation electrification manager for the nonprofit environmental analysis group Western Resource Advocates. “There’s no evidence I’ve seen  that suggests we’re going to be blown off this trajectory.” 

The auto dealers’ report, which tracks new cars registered in the state, said 16,000 EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were sold in Colorado in 2021. Both types qualify as the kinds of ultralow emissions vehicles Colorado wants replacing gas vehicles on the roads. 

Coloradans did buy another 17,678 true hybrids in 2021, or 7.3% of the overall new vehicle market, and hybrids can get highly efficient gas mileage. But they don’t qualify for the “California standard” of ultra-low emissions under Colorado rules. 

The CADA figures put EV and plug-in hybrid sales at 6.5% of total registrations for 2021. The Colorado Energy Office says that combined market share was 8.1%. In a market of 244,000 new car registrations, the difference in growth estimates means thousands of cars a year.

Asked to describe the difference in growth rates, Christian Williss of the Colorado Energy Office said in email responses, “Discrepancy is likely due to how light-duty cars and trucks are defined in each analysis.” The auto dealers, Williss said, may include more trucks in its registration total that the state energy office considers too heavy and classifies as medium duty. 

A sign in downtown Salida points the way to a public charging station for EVs, part of the growing network needed to help Coloradans switch to cleaner vehicles. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun, April 2, 2021)

Despite the different views of what happened in 2021, the energy office said the raw EV registration numbers by Colorado buyers remain on the higher track estimates that will accumulate to 940,000 vehicles on the road in 2030.

The energy office also claims EV growth accelerated even further in the final three months of last year, portending good things for the state’s goals for 2030. October share of EVs was 9.6%, November was 10.8%, and December was 12.8%, according to Williss’ analysis.

Colorado has made significant gains in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities and industrial sources. Transportation is now one of the remaining largely untouched columns of pollution state officials want to address through electrification and accelerated experimentation with hydrogen fuel. Replacing gas-fueled vehicles with EVs is a keystone of all the plans. 

State officials and independent energy analysts say a slew of new electric models in the popular SUV and light truck categories will also put rocket fuel in Colorado’s sales growth. Automakers started electrification and hybrids with small sedans like the Toyota Prius, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt and Volt. Tesla jolted the sedan category with sleek models outside the traditional dealer system. 

Now, manufacturers promise big-name EVs in 2023, including an electric version of Colorado’s best-selling single model, the Ford F-150 pickup. Rivian promises delivery of its trucks and SUVs this year. Other SUV models that could goose sales in 2023 include the Hyundai Ioniq, the Volkswagen ID.4, and a Toyota/Subaru teamup. 

No surprises on what’s popular in the Colorado EV market so far. All-electric Tesla sold 6,872 vehicles in Colorado last year, up sharply from 3,863 in 2020, according to CADA’s analysis. Other EV brands were far behind. Chevy’s Bolt registered 455 vehicles in 2021; Nissan’s Leaf had 1,193. 

CADA CEO Tim Jackson noted that if hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full EVs are added together, sales of “fuel-efficient vehicles powered with big batteries increased by 81%, year-over-year. And that was a year plagued by supply chain restrictions, micro-chip shortages and extremely limited inventory to demonstrate to consumers.” 

“Colorado consumers are anxious to improve fuel economy, though maybe not yet ready for fully electric cars without a gas engine backup,” he added.

Colorado’s enduring love of off-road vehicles, that may never in fact go off road, also deepened in 2021. Vehicles categorized as light trucks — including pickups, SUVs and the lighter “crossover” utility vehicles — made up 85.5% of all vehicles sold. That’s up 15 points in 10 years, the auto dealers said, and much higher than the split in the nation as a whole, where sedans remain somewhat popular. 

All 10 of the top-selling model names in Colorado — from the F-150 Lightning to the Toyota RAV4 to the Subaru Outback and the GMC Sierra — fall in that light truck category. SUVs on the road around the world have gone up from fewer than 50 million in 2010 to 320 million last year, according to energy analysts Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos, with the International Energy Agency. Ninety-eight percent of those are petroleum-driven, and consume on average 20% more energy than sedans. 

Worldwide, SUVs bought in 2021 alone added 120 million tons of CO2 to global emissions, the IEA says. To compare, Colorado’s total greenhouse gas emissions from all sources are about 125 to 130 million tons a year. 

Colorado Energy Office officials said gas-powered SUV growth is clear, but “over the next few years as we get later in the decade, the number of new electric trucks and SUVs sold will eclipse the number of electric sedans.” That will happen in about 2026, Williss said. 

“Colorado’s goals are now pretty well aligned with the plans of most major automakers,” said Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor. General Motors, for example, had pledged to be fully electric in sales by 2035, including all its popular pickup and SUV models, he noted. 

“It is clear that the industry is headed in the right direction,” Toor said. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...