As the United States belatedly gets on the electric-vehicle bandwagon and people everywhere are scrambling to find cars on dealers’ lots, would-be buyers in New Hampshire are facing a self-imposed obstacle with a clumsy name: ZEV/LEV.

That acronym, standing for zero-emission and low-emission vehicles, describes a clean-air program created by California and since adopted in various forms by 15 states over the past decade. It gives manufacturers an incentive to sell cars in states that adopt the program. And guess who isn’t part of it?

New Hampshire’s go-it-alone legislators, prodded by that inexplicable GOP opposition to anything environmental, have never gotten on board with this program even as the rest of New England has joined. As a result, auto companies that want to avoid paying penalties due to falling short in ZEV sales are more likely to send their scarce models to dealers outside our borders.

“You’d see huge trailers coming from Michigan to New England, dropping off vehicles at dealers all over the place but not New Hampshire,” said Rebecca McWilliams, a Democrat state representative from Concord. McWilliams submitted a bill to get New Hampshire into the ZEV program when Democrats were in control but COVID stalled it. She hasn’t submitted a version in this GOP-dominated legislature.

The New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association opposed joining the ZEV program originally, partly out of fears that dealers would be stuck with electric cars nobody wanted, but seems neutral now that EV enthusiasm is growing. Dan Bennet, vice president of government relations for the group, says a shortage of electric vehicles caused by global supply-chain issues rather than any government program is the issue causing shortages on dealers’ lots today.

For years New Hampshire buyers have often had to go to a dealer in Massachusetts or other states to get their Bolt or Leaf (dealer-less Tesla is a different matter). That was a minor inconvenience and not a big business problem when electric vehicles were a niche item for techies and tree-huggers.

But as dozens of models role out from virtually every manufacturer and the general public begins to realize that EVs are superior to gas cars in most ways – EV sales will hit double-digit percentage of total sales in this country within two or three years, and local-delivery fleet sales will go way past that – it’s becoming yet another obstacle to 21st-century business that New Hampshire has placed in our own way.

Another example? Our shortage of public charging stations compared to everybody around us, including Quebec.

Legislators have balked at supporting public chargers and we haven’t even been very speedy in spending free money for installing them. The $4.6 million share of our VW “dieselgate” funds earmarked for EV chargers (a pretty small share to begin with) has stalled for two years. It may finally be used this year; the state has received 43 legitimate proposals to put chargers in 25 communities and is evaluating them.

Bennet of the Dealers Association says public chargers, along with more subtle changes like time-of-use electricity rates that make overnight charging cheaper, would go a long way to increase customer interest in EVs, which in turn will get manufacturers to ship models here.

“That and vehicle incentives are the things that create the manufacturer’s demand,” he said – a comment made, incidentally, before GM dropped the price of the Bolt by a whopping $6,000.

From my perspective, these are both examples of New Hampshire being held back in a time of fast technological change by the anti-government sentiment that is part of our makeup.

Yes, it’s often best to let the “invisible hand” of the marketplace work things out, limiting government oversight to stop incidental damage. But it’s not always best and the breakneck speed of the clean-energy revolution has created one of those exceptional times.

Solar and wind power, energy storage, modern heat and lighting technology, modern transportation alternatives, distributed energy systems – we can’t expect industries built around old models to create these new ones. Elected representatives rather than profit-maximizing executives should be priming the pump and guiding our economy to succeed amid the climate emergency.

This applies to the nation as a whole, too: China is, to be blunt, leaving America in the dirt when it comes to modern transportation and energy. 

We need to wake up or we’re going to be the buggy-whip state in the Model T nation wondering why all those cool electric vehicles are passing us by.

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