Eleven years ago, the Washington Legislature told state and local governments, “to the extent practicable,” to run all vehicles on electricity or biofuels.
The law was an early attempt to push public agencies away from fossil fuels amid concerns about emissions, air pollution and climate change. A new survey of public agencies — timed for release on a key compliance date — shows most government agencies have fallen far short of the law’s ambitious goals.
Among the 24 counties and cities included in the survey, less than 6 percent of the passenger and sport-utility fleets operated on electricity, according to the report by Coltura, a nonprofit that supports the phaseout of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.
Electric vehicles in government passenger and SUV fleets
Seattle: 178 of 740 total
Tacoma: 7 of 311
Everett: 7 of 180
Vancouver: 3 of 214
Spokane: 0 of 248
King County: 9 of 671
Pierce County: 3 of 237
Snohomish County: 5 of 145
Coltura report: “Recharge Required”
Matthew Metz, the Seattle-based co-executive director of Coltura, released his report Friday, the deadline set by the Legislature for local governments to be running their fleets — as much as possible — on electricity, biofuels or other alternatives.
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An earlier deadline — June 1, 2015 — was set for state-government agencies to come into compliance. The survey also included the responses from five state agencies that reported 152 electric cars among a fleet of 3,371 passenger and sport-utility vehicles.
The most progress appears to have been made by Seattle city officials: Nearly a quarter of its fleet of 740 passenger and sport-utility vehicles runs on electricity.
Meanwhile, nine other cities and counties in the survey have yet to buy any electric cars for their passenger fleets.
“The big take-away from this is, it is not just about policy,” Metz said. “It is also about implementation, and that is where we are falling down. There are a lot of things we are supposed to be doing under this law that are just not happening.”
Washington state, largely due to an abundance of hydropower, gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse-gas emissions.
Cars and trucks are the biggest source of these emissions, so boosting the use of electric vehicles has been a key part of the long-term strategy for reducing the state’s carbon footprint. Metz and other proponents of the law say pushing state and local governments to the forefront of that effort will help spur broader acceptance of electric vehicles.
Metz has been working on the Coltura report since December. He filed public-record requests for vehicle information from 42 state- and local-government agencies, ranging from school districts to the Port of Seattle to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Assessing the costs
Electric vehicles have been increasingly available since 2011, when the Nissan Leaf was introduced. Public agencies are continually buying new vehicles as their fleets age, and that opens opportunities to buy electric models.
Metz asserts that the survey indicates state and local agencies could be making greater user of electric vehicles, and thus are not following the law.
Metz also notes that government agencies haven’t filed mandated progress reports with the Commerce Department — the state agency charged by the Legislature with developing the rules that lay out compliance with the law.
Peter Moulton, a Washington Commerce Department official, acknowledges that some public agencies have not made a lot of progress in electrification. But Moulton says his department has had no funding from the Legislature to help educate local governments about the law, and no power to enforce the law through financial penalties or other sanctions for being out of compliance.
“It’s more of a moral argument as we work with local governments,” Moulton said.
For local governments, the obstacles for increasing the use of electric vehicles include performance standards — such as the lack of electric cars that are “pursuit rated,” the standard Pierce County requires for some 400 vehicles used by sheriff’s deputies.
In terms of cost, electric vehicles appear to be less expensive in the long run. Both the state of Washington and city of Seattle have found that the expense of acquiring and running electric vehicles, through all the years of ownership, is less than operating similar gasoline-powered vehicles.
The Washington Department of Enterprise Services calculated that an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt costs less over time, due to lower fuel and maintenance costs, than two other models that use gasoline. The Bolt’s lifetime cost was $3,000 less to operate than a Prius, and $1,000 less than a Ford Focus, according to the state calculations.
“What we have found is, almost always, it does make sense to buy electric based on a total cost of ownership,” Moulton said.
But the upfront cost for the Bolt is significantly higher, and this can work against their acquisition when local governments have limited capital budgets. The cost differentials are even higher for electric trucks and sport-utility vehicles that are just beginning to appear on the market, according to Moulton.
Investments also need to be made in electric charging stations.
Andrea Pratt, Seattle’s green-fleet program manager, said federal grants helped the city to finance charging stations as Nissan Leafs began to be purchased in 2011. The one-time costs for Level 2 charging stations, which offer a faster charge, typically range from $3,000 to $7,000 per car, and are expected to last for 50 years.
But for other municipalities, the costs of building up the charging infrastructure have been a big barrier.
“While we agree with the principle and spirit of the legislation, cost differences for emerging technologies are completely unfunded, leaving municipalities with the ‘to the extent practicable,’ caveat,” wrote Stacy Ellifritt, a spokesperson for the city of Tacoma, which has seven electric vehicles out of a fleet of 311 passenger cars, in response to questions from The Seattle Times.
Moulton said some state grant money will be available this year to help local governments develop charging stations through a clean-energy fund. There also will be funding next decade through a separate pot of money that represents Washington’s share of a federal settlement with Volkswagen over that company’s cheating on air-emission tests.
Meanwhile, local governments are taking other steps, besides acquiring electric cars, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from their fleets.
Tacoma, for example, operates hybrid, compressed-natural-gas garbage trucks. The Port of Seattle has a fleet of 108 electric utility carts as well as 19 sedans and 40 buses that run on compressed natural gas. King County has electric buses that can travel up to 23 miles before charging, and then be recharged within 10 minutes.
With an ever wider range of electric vehicles now being marketed, Metz is hopeful that the pace of change will pick up.
But, overall, Metz says the law — due to a lack of resolve, resources and accountability — has fallen far short of its potential for shifting Washington’s public fleets off fossil fuels. In his report, he writes that elected officials need to take greater note of the law, and commit to more oversight of how it is carried out.