By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) in the United States may not top one million until 2020, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Thursday, showing purchases have fallen well below President Barack Obama's goal of reaching that number by 2015.
In an interview with Reuters on the sidelines of the Washington auto show, Moniz said the country may hit the figure in three to four years with continuing improvements in battery technology, but low gasoline prices have had a negative impact on sales.
"If we get a little acceleration, obviously we're probably three, four years away," Moniz said after getting a look at some new electric vehicles at the show. "I remain very bullish."
In August 2008, with gas prices averaging nearly $4 a gallon, then presidential candidate Barack Obama set a goal of getting one million plug-in electric vehicles on the roads by 2015 -- something he reiterated in his 2011 State of the Union.
With gas prices averaging less than $2 a gallon - only about 400,000 electric cars have been sold to date. There are about 250 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads.
Last year, sales fell 6 percent over the previous year, to about 115,000, despite the industry offering about 30 plug-in models, often at deep discounts.
President Barack Obama has been a major backer of EVs while in office. On a visit to the Detroit auto show Wednesday, Obama noted that he got a look at some "plug-in hybrids and electrics and fuel-efficient cars that can protect our planet, save people money at the pump."
Moniz said lowering battery costs is "absolutely critical" to boosting electric vehicle sales - and noted the administration's goal is to make EVs as affordable to own and operate as gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022. He said the future for EVs "remains extremely bright."
Asked about the shift to SUVs by many U.S. buyers last year, Moniz said it was important to keep short term market moves in perspective. "We take the long-term view," Moniz said. On Thursday, the Energy Department said it was awarding $55 million for new cost-sharing projects including fuel-efficient vehicle technologies like energy storage, electric drive systems, materials, fuels and lubricants and advanced combustion - one of a number of partnerships the government has offered in recent years.
Automakers are continuing to roll out new electric vehicles facing zero emission vehicle mandates from California and other states, along with rising federal fuel efficiency mandates.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Andrew Hay)