Lee Auto Malls Chairman Adam Lee plugs in a Honda Clarity plug-in hybrid car at Lee Honda in Auburn. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

AUBURN — In 2014, Lee Auto Malls, the largest Prius and Nissan Leaf dealer in Maine, sold about 20 hybrid and electric vehicles per month, accounting for less than 1% of sales.

Flash forward five years and that’s grown “just a teeny bit,” Chairman Adam Lee said.

The electric car isn’t quite having its day in the sun, yet.

In the next year, Maine will be among many states in the country to offer a rebate incentive on sales. Efficiency Maine is installing nearly 100 more charging stations statewide. And the auto industry is about to be run over with new models.

“There are, in this country, probably 25 coming in the next two years that will go 200-plus miles (on a charge),” Lee said. “Worldwide, there are about 50 coming. I think we’ll see adoption change dramatically. When every dealership you go in, you see a cool electric car, and as they get the range to 200-mile plus, people will start to realize they’re cool.”

The third generation in the business, Lee has sold cars for 30 years. He’s also driven an electric plug-in Tesla S for five and sat for so long on several environmental boards — Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association — that he said he termed out.

About 20 years ago, when his dealership started selling the then-novel Prius, “they sat around,” Lee said. “Every dealer had two in their lot. And then gas spiked and suddenly people started taking interest. When gas is cheap, people seem to care less about fuel economy.”

These days there are also consumer tastes: Roughly 60% of vehicle sales are are full-size trucks and SUVs, of which there aren’t electric or hybrid options. Yet.

INCENTIVES, PLANS

Efficiency Maine Trust estimates there are roughly 425 electric vehicles on Maine roads now and another 850 plug-in hybrid models. Estimates weren’t available for the number of gas/electric hybrids that toggle between both fuels and don’t need to be plugged in.

Gov. Janet Mills and that group announced last month that the state will use $5.1 million in Volkswagen settlement funds to help agencies that serve the elderly, low-income populations and Mainers with special needs buy about 100 electric vehicles and start a rebate incentive program for residents and businesses, getting another 900 electric vehicles on the road.

At the same time, another $3 million in VW settlement funds is going to new charging stations, a mix of roughly 30 fast and 50 to 60 standard chargers, according to Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard.

Statewide, that should bring the number of public charging stations to between 250 and 300 by Labor Day 2020, he said.

Adam Lee can use his mobile phone to track how much time is left until his Tesla S has a full charge. Lee said his car will go about 260 miles on a full charge. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

“One of the main reservations that car buyers have had about electric vehicles is whether they’ll be able to go about their daily business without any concern of running out of charge before they can get to the next charging station,” Stoddard said. “I’m sure the premium of price is also a significant barrier, that’s the point of the two-pronged approach to these initiatives.”

Effeciency Maine, which will oversee the electric vehicle rebate program, hasn’t firmed up dollar amounts yet but hopes to roll out the program later this year, Stoddard said.

The state rebate can be combined with a $7,500 federal tax incentive on electric vehicles, provided it still exists. President Donald Trump has taken it out of his proposed budget.

“I’m not convinced that Trump is going to get rid of them,” Lee said. “I think he would like to, but sometimes these things are harder to do than it sounds. But they do start to get cut in half by manufacturers who have hit a certain cap and sold a certain number of vehicles. So the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla, I think, will drop in half next year, so that’s another reason to want to take advantage of it now.”

Reasons for consumers to consider electric, in his mind: Lower long-term operating costs, good fuel economy and a personal way to address concerns about pollution and climate change.

Reasons to not: Driving range and the higher sales price, both of which he sees improving.

Lee has been in his Tesla S for over two years.

“I like that it’s electric,” he said.”It’s a good-sized car, it’s a beautiful car, it’s comfortable. It goes really fast, and it’s got room, and it has range — at a time when most of the market was making cars that go 100 miles, this one had a range of 250 or 260.”

And if he had to project five years out, will Lee Auto Malls see more than 1% hybrid and electric sales?

It might even be more than 2%, he said. Maybe.

“In the world of environmentalists and fans of electric cars, I tend to be slightly more conservative and pragmatic, maybe, than other people,” Lee said. “That’s what 30 years of selling cars will do to you: You realize change can come slowly.”


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