‘Sitting around doing nothing’: Washington electric cars face mass adoption hurdles

An electric car is being charged at a charging station. Photo courtesy Shutterstock.com
An electric car is being charged at a charging station. Photo courtesy Shutterstock.com

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee said Washington state will follow California’s lead and ban the sale of new gas-powered automobiles in the state by 2035

Brett Davis
The Center Square Washington

From the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton, the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee was updated Tuesday morning on its ongoing study of strategies to encourage high consumption fuel users to switch to electric vehicles.

JTC has been tasked to do so by the Legislature as part of a plan to incentivize those drivers – who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of emissions – in transitioning to electric vehicles.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee said Washington state will follow California’s lead and ban the sale of new gas-powered automobiles in the state by 2035.

Lawmakers set a goal of phasing out sales of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2030 as part of the nearly $17 billion “Move Ahead Washington” transportation package that passed the Legislature during this year’s session.

In 2020, Washington lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5811 – Inslee signed it into law – directing the state Department of Ecology to adopt California’s emissions standards as they’re rolled out.

About 12% of drivers in Washington consume about 50% of gasoline, with 4.2% of drivers consuming 25% of fuel, explained Jeff Doyle, project manager for engineering and construction firm CDM Smith, based on information from the  state Department of Licensing’s vehicle database and other external sources.

“So, for today we’re going to look at EV adoption in the current conditions through two lenses,” he said.

Those two lenses are supply challenges and consumer challenges.

When it comes to electric vehicles, supply challenges include retail availability, model variety, supply chain constraints, and used car inventory.

“Some of the pinch points in EV adoption are likely to dissipate, or are already dissipating, including retail availability somewhat,” Doyle noted, with electric vehicles inching toward mainstream acceptance. “As you look out into the longer term, many of these potential barriers will diminish. However, others may crop up.”

One of those barriers includes battery components, he said. That includes not just the battery packs to power electric vehicles, but also the availability of the raw materials required to manufacture said batteries for the auto industry.

Lithium, nickel, and cobalt are key metals used to make electric vehicle batteries.

On the consumer side of the equation, CDM Smith found that the biggest concern about purchasing an electric vehicle is running out of power, with 58% of total drivers and 38% of electric vehicle drivers indicating that as their biggest fear.

Rounding out the list of consumer concerns about electric vehicles was low availability of charging stations, initial vehicle cost (the former No. 1 worry), and cost to service and/or repair the engine.

Doyle singled out the economy as a major factor that colors how people see electric vehicles. He touting the advantage of automobiles that run entirely or partially on electricity in an industry currently dominated by gas.

As a motor fuel, electricity in Washington state costs significantly less than gas, he said, at about 4 cents per mile for the former compared to about 14 cents per mile for the latter.

Wild fluctuation is gas prices could also make electric vehicles more appealing, Doyle said.

“You budget to the peak,” he said, referencing the high cost of gas. “And the result of that is that households have to plan for the peak. It’s economic displacement. That’s money that otherwise might have gone for other goods in the economy, and that’s what economists are worried about.”

Doyle pointed out that policy interventions by government – purchase rebates, research and development investments, public charging infrastructure, operational incentives – would also have a substantial effect on electric vehicles.

“All of those things can influence either the timing of when the barriers are overcome or in some cases actually lowering them to the point they’re no longer barriers,” he said.

Nevertheless, a few committee members gave some indication of the challenge the state faces in trying to entice Washingtonians to embrace an electric vehicle future.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, admitted to being one of the 12% of drivers accounting for 50% of gas consumption, owing to driving all over the 39th Legislative District she represents that includes most of Snohomish and Skagit counties in the northeastern corner of King County.

“It could be a wash if I purchased one as far as no fuel price, right?” she asked rhetorically. “However, I love my car, so that is a deterrent.”

Ranking member Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, took things a step further, trumpeting the good gas mileage he gets in the rural eastern half of the state, as opposed to those in more urban areas whose gas mileage isn’t as good due to traffic jams and the like.

“If I have to stop every two or three hundred miles and charge a car, I’m spending a lot of time sitting around doing nothing,” said King, who confessed he’s one of the 4.2% of drivers who accounts for 25% of gas consumption. “And I don’t like sitting around doing nothing. That’s the reason why it’s going to take a while to have somebody convince me I need an electric car.”

The final report – including recommendations for effective messaging for getting high consumption users to shift to electric vehicles – is set to come out in June 2023.

This story was first published by The Center Square Washington.

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