Electric Vehicles Are Taking Off in Parts of Conservative Texas

Washington Post photo by Jeanne Whalen
A Tesla stands beside two gas-powered vehicles – a Chevrolet and a Ferrari – at a valet parking stand at the high-end Legacy West mall in Plano, Tex.

PLANO, Tex. – Tony Federico bought his Tesla Model 3 in 2018. A former Marine who votes Republican, Federico said he was drawn by the cool technology and the chance to save money on gas.

“I think selfishly it was, you know, how is this going to help my pocketbook,” he said from his living room one recent morning. Environmental concerns were “not really” on his radar, said the head of the local Tesla owners club.

Electric vehicles are often associated with liberal coastal types who speak of saving the planet. But in this Republican stronghold north of Dallas, more and more people are deciding that driving an EV is just common sense.

In Collin County, home to Plano, EV market share is well above the national average and growing fast, reaching 8.7 percent of new-vehicle registrations last year, according to S&P Global Mobility. In neighboring Denton County, also reliably red, EVs grew to 7.3 percent of the market. Nationwide, electric cars were about 6.2 percent of new-vehicle registrations last year.

Some EV buyers in the Plano area expressed concern about the climate, but most said they were drawn by the performance, style and high-tech features of the vehicles – and the convenience and savings of avoiding the gas pump.

“I used to drive a Mercedes-Benz SUV and I went to go fill up my gas tank and it was over $4 for premium gas. So I went the very next day, and I traded it in for an electric vehicle,” said Kate Allen, sitting in her Model 3, sipping iced coffee while she charged. The possibility of helping the environment was a “bonus” – not her main motivation, she added.

Allen, a Republican voter who lives in nearby Frisco, works as a property manager in Dallas’s Uptown neighborhood. A year ago, hers was the only EV parked at one of the residential buildings she manages. Now there are half a dozen.

For the Biden administration, it doesn’t really matter why drivers choose EVs, so long as they choose them. Rapidly scaling up EV adoption is a centerpiece of the administration’s green-energy agenda, which is using tax credits and other incentives to try to make plug-in vehicles account for half of new vehicle sales by 2030. Hitting that target would mean reducing U.S. greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions by up to 9 percent by 2030, according to Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Nationwide, most of the counties with the highest EV uptake are predictably blue and often high-income, but pockets of red are springing up. Florida’s St. Johns County, home to St. Augustine; Indiana’s Hamilton County, north of Indianapolis; North Carolina’s Union County, southeast of Charlotte; New Jersey’s seaside Monmouth County; and California’s Kern County, home to Bakersfield, are among the areas that voted for Trump in 2020 and had higher-than-average EV market-share growth last year, S&P data shows.

Conservative support for green energy isn’t a totally new phenomenon, says Neal Farris, a left-leaning photographer and EV enthusiast in Dallas who promotes the vehicles at auto shows and Earth Day events. “One of the people I quote a lot is T. Boone Pickens,” he said, referring to the oil billionaire and longtime Republican donor who embraced renewable energy late in life. “He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do solar, let’s do wind, because if we do, then the oil will last longer.'”

To be sure, there are plenty of regions in Texas where EV skepticism remains high and chargers are tough to find. Federico volunteers with a Christian ministry group that visits prisoners near small-town Palestine, Tex., and he makes sure to charge up at home before driving. “I couldn’t plug in there if I wanted to,” he said.

And the powerful oil and gas lobby still holds a lot of sway in the state, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, head of the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance.

But even some Republican lawmakers who have long supported the oil-and-gas industry have begun sponsoring a few bills that favor EVs, partly because their wealthy constituents are buying the cars, Smith said. “They are seeing [EVs] all over the Republican communities,” he said. “And they are seeing them with people who are seen as political and intellectual leaders in their communities.”

One Republican-sponsored bill recently signed by Gov. Greg Abbott fast-tracks infrastructure upgrades to support charging, among other things. Another awaiting the governor’s signature would ensure that public chargers clearly post their pricing. A third recently signed into law, however, creates a $400 registration fee for EV drivers and a $200 annual renewal fee thereafter, to recoup money that drivers aren’t paying through gasoline taxes.

Buzz Smith, an electric advocate in Fort Worth who calls himself “The EVangelist,” said he has had executives from Exxon and other oil companies approach him at auto shows and whisper their interest in electrification. “They say they are retiring and their next car will be an EV,” he said.

In some Dallas-area households, electric vehicles are now sharing garages with gas-fired pickup trucks. That’s often true on a national level, too. Ford F-series trucks are the top garage mate for the Mustang Mach-E and three other electric cars in the United States, while Chevy’s Silverado truck is the most common garage mate for the Bolt EV, according to S&P Global Mobility.

Greg Nipper, a tech-industry manager who lives in north Dallas, bought a Tesla Model 3 in 2018, parking it at home next to his Ford F-150 pickup. Soon, he decided to ditch the truck.

“I’ve always been a pickup person, but the enjoyment of driving that [Tesla] was enough that I traded my pickup for a second Model 3,” said Nipper, a registered Democrat who has voted more Republican in recent elections. The convenience of charging at home also won him over. “No oil change, no going to the gas station. Simply plug in at night and wake up with a full charge.”

The prevalence of software, semiconductor and telecom companies in the area north of Dallas means there are plenty of well-heeled buyers eager for the latest technology.

Federico, who works in the IT industry, has seen the number of electric vehicles balloon since he bought one. Waiting at a red light one recent morning, after dropping his daughter off at school, he counted more than a dozen Teslas whizzing by. “There’s a Y. There’s a 3. There’s a 3, There’s a Y,” he pointed, ticking them off in the 90 seconds before the light changed.

In his spare time, Federico runs a local Tesla owners club that meets up for social events or coffee hangouts at charging stations. Gathering on the top floor of a Plano parking garage on a recent morning, club members chatted about their cars and passed out club information to other Tesla owners who were killing time while charging.

The drivers mostly swapped stories about the rapid growth of EVs and chargers in their area, but also a few reminders that they are still in Texas.

Dressed in a Tesla Cyber Truck hat and a “My Car Runs on Sunshine” T-shirt, club member John Packer said it is not uncommon for EV drivers to encounter antisocial or passive aggressive behavior. Sometimes gas-powered pickup trucks park in front of charging stations, even when plenty of other spots are available, just to block them. “There is a challenge, because this is an oil state,” said Packer, a Democrat who drives a Model Y and owns a logistics company that uses 16 electric Rivian vans for deliveries.

On a national level, the top dozen counties for EV market-share growth last year were all in California, according to S&P data, followed by counties near Seattle, D.C., Boulder, Colo., New York and Portland, Ore.

Travis County, a Democratic stronghold that is home to Austin, is the Lone Star state’s top county for EV market-share growth, ranking 28th nationally. But the next two Texas counties, ranking 43 and 52, are Collin and Denton, which have long voted red and supported Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections.

In Denton County, one entrepreneur and his partner are so pro-electrification that they’ve started a small business converting classic cars into EVs.

Bill Schofield, a two-time Trump voter who describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, got interested in EVs a decade ago, when he was among the first 2,000 customers to buy a Tesla Model S.

Schofield didn’t think the vehicles were going to help the environment much, and he still doesn’t. He was chasing the latest technology.

“I think the Democrats think they’re saving the planet, because they didn’t do the real math to see that – oh, no, they’re not,” he said. “The Republicans and conservatives, they bought it because it was the cool new technology.”

After falling in love with his Tesla’s performance and high-tech perks, Schofield bought an electric Porsche Taycan and an electrified Mercedes EQS, with the tidy sum he made selling his electrical distribution business. He also started the business converting classic cars, which he now runs with his colleague, Kevin Emr.

In their roadside garage in Denton, they showed off a dozen vintage cars they are overhauling – a 1965 Shelby Cobra, a 1968 Camaro, a 1959 Corvette – by swapping out the gasoline engines for electric motors and batteries. The switch makes them drive beautifully, with all the torque and power of a modern electric vehicle and little of the rattling and glitchiness of an old gasoline car, they said.

“If you’ve driven [an EV], you’ve realized how convenient they are to own and drive,” said Emr, an engineer and racecar driver who has a Rivian SUV on order. His father-in-law, a longtime Ford driver who favored pickup trucks and SUVs, recently bought Ford’s electric Mustang Mach E. “No more gas station trips, no more oil changes. No more maintenance, no drips in your garage, no smells. Everything just works.”

Washington Post photo by Jeanne Whalen
Kevin Emr shows off a classic car that he and his business partner are converting to an electric vehicle at their garage in Denton, Tex.