Jay Fox figures he was one of the first people to own an electric vehicle in New Jersey when he purchased a Nissan Leaf in 2010.

However, making the switch to electric wasn't exactly a smooth transition. He received a tax credit but that was really the only support available for electric vehicle owners a little more than a decade ago.

It's a totally different story today.

Fox, now the executive director of the Utah Transit Authority, points out that "huge government programs" are facilitating future electrification, such as assistance to help transit agencies purchase electric vehicles while the infrastructure is slowly shifting to handle an increasing number of electric vehicles. Yet this growth is bound to create more new challenges than he experienced in 2010.

Electric vehicle drivers are sick of broken EV chargers, survey says

"We have to build out a charging network for (more electric buses)," he adds. "We don't want to do that alone."

Of course, UTA isn't alone in this. Scores of cities and counties across the state as starting to look into electric vehicles, as are state agencies, local businesses and more. Power companies, state officials and engineers are also looking into ways to expand access for everyone who is looking to switch to electric.

All of this inspired Fox and UTA to bring everyone together for a forum on electric vehicles, which could be the first step in a massive electrification master plan to guide Utah's transportation into a completely new era of travel. The event Friday brought together state transportation officials, energy and environmental experts, as well as government leaders, including keynote addresses by Utah Rep. Blake Moore and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

With electric expansion well underway, most of the message Friday centered on how to coordinate its rise.

The case for electric

Environmental groups have long pushed for electric vehicles as an alternative to gas-powered vehicles, a major source of Utah's annual emissions, according to state regulators. On a similar note, Daniel Mendoza, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, explains that there's a "staggering" air quality difference just by switching diesel buses to electric.

But there's a "business sense" to switch buses from diesel to electric, says Hal Johnson, UTA's project development manager. He says the agency's three electric buses are anywhere from three to nearly four times more efficient than diesel buses when looking at the energy needed per mile. The three electric buses travel what would equate to 15 to 20 miles per gallon, as compared to the diesel buses' 4.5 to 5.5 per gallon.

A Utah Transit Authority bus travels along Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights on Friday. UTA held a transportation electrification forum that discussed its plans to move more toward electric vehicles in the future also on Friday.
A Utah Transit Authority bus travels along Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights on Friday. UTA held a transportation electrification forum that discussed its plans to move more toward electric vehicles in the future also on Friday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"When you start looking at combustion engines, you lose about 80% of your efficiency just to heat and mechanicals within the system," he adds. "Electric propulsion is just more efficient."

This is why UTA is eying an expansion to its bus fleet. It is expecting 22 new electric buses in Salt Lake County next year, which will be outfitted with air quality monitors to participate in a year-old network that better tracks air quality in the county. The agency also expects to add about 200 more buses to its fleet over the next two decades, eventually replacing older buses as they are retired.

That means UTA is on pace to have about 40% of its fleet converted to electric by 2040. The agency also has 11 electric buses with its forthcoming Ogden Express project and 10 electric on-demand vans.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes a tax credit for electric vehicles but most electric vehicles won’t qualify

The FrontRunner commuter train may also be electric by 2040. UTA's long-term plans call for it to be electrified by around 2040, though those plans aren't as solid partially because it will require new funding to make it happen, Johnson explained. He adds that mechanics have helped improve all of the locomotive emissions since the service rolled out in 2008 in the meantime.

These goals mirror many places, including Utah's largest city. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, in a prerecorded message played at the event, pointed out that the city currently maintains 71 electric vehicles across different branches of the city's fleet. The city's goal is to have plug-in options cover "the majority" of its fleet's sedans by the end of 2023 while looking into electric options for other fleet vehicles on top of making public electric vehicle options more accessible.

"We want to make it easier for those who live, work and play in the capital city to do their part in reducing emissions by driving and easily charging electric vehicles," she said, adding that the city installed 20 public charging ports across the city that are free to use within the parking time limits. "But we need to do even more to make it more convenient for people to charge their cars."

Regan Zane, the director of Utah State University's ASPIRE Research Center, also shared new technologies being developed to allow for larger fleets, from UTA buses to semitrailers to even trains, to recharge without needing a plug-in cable.

The center's goal is to invent ways to integrate charging into parking structures and roads, to reduce the size of batteries while helping them last longer. This could also help expand the grid out to more rural communities.

"(It's) becoming a hot topic," he said. "It's certainly on the minds of many."

The energy to power it

Solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources are also considered ways to enhance electric benefits, especially as new technology seeks to harness the enormous energy potential of the various sources. As Mendenhall put it, clean energy plus electric vehicles will "reduce overall carbon emissions and improve air quality."

The work to harness those energies is ongoing; however, there's no timeline for it to come to fruition. Gregory Todd, who recently began work as Gov. Spencer Cox's new energy adviser in the Utah Office of Energy Development, and Laura Hanson, state planning coordinator, explained that Utah supports the market demand for these newer technologies over government regulations.

Cox's administration released a Utah Energy and Innovation Plan that seeks "affordability, reliability and sustainability" within the state's energy system through a "series of commitments," Hanson said. This could be renewable energy but it could include fossil fuels to match the state's goal to have a more energy-independent grid.

Does it make financial sense to buy an electric vehicle right now?

James Campbell, the director of innovation and sustainability policy for Rocky Mountain Power, said the company is still looking to reach its goal of reducing its 2005 emissions by almost 75% by 2030 and nearly 100% by 2050. So it is looking at "massive" wind and solar construction in the near future, such as the forthcoming Elektron Solar project, an 80-megawatt solar farm northwest of Grantsville in Tooele County that is set to open in 2023.

That said, he cautioned that more needs to be done to meet the prime objective of any utility company, which is "keep the lights on."

"We're going to have to find other technologies," he said. "So, right now, nuclear is the only zero-emitting technology that can ensure base load combined with massive amounts of renewables with massive amounts of storage."

Hydrogen is another possibility. A plan for the world's largest industrial green hydrogen production and storage facility near Delta in Millard County recently received a conditional commitment of more than $504 million in federal funding for construction.

Working together for a future

About a half-dozen individual plans or objectives were discussed Friday. All the ideas floating around about moving to cleaner technology fueled the need for a forum, which Fox hopes can turn into a massive master plan for local, county and state agencies to use.

He wasn't sure that it would draw that much interest but it attracted over 100 government employees or industry experts. Most seemed to agree that collaboration is needed as the state begins to venture out in the future.

"In my view, the key to this is collaboration, working together to accomplish goals that are larger than any of us if we work individually," said Andrew Gruber, the executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council. "And, in Utah, we have a really strong track record of such collaboration. ... With this collaboration, I'm confident that we can do this."