Agency transition to e-cars stuck in low gear

State and local governments in Washington are in the slow lane when it comes to switching public vehicle fleets to carbon-free electric cars or plug-in hybrids.

A report issued this month by nonprofit environmental group Coltura, which favors a phase-out of fossil fuel use, says most of the 42 government agencies it surveyed are failing to comply with a 2007 state law that requires Washington agencies to buy electric-vehicle models when feasible.

The law, adopted when Chris Gregoire was in her first term as governor, says fleets must run on electricity or biofuels to the extent it is “practicable.” The law set deadlines of June 2015 for state government fleets and June 1 this year for local governments such as cities, counties, school districts and ports.

But legislators did not give the state Department of Commerce – or anyone else – authority to enforce the law when it asked Commerce to write the e-vehicle mandate into state administrative law, says Peter Moulton, the energy-policy section manager at Commerce.

The oversight is a big reason that few jurisdictions have stepped up in a big way. For example, the state Department of Enterprise Services manages the largest public vehicle fleet in the state and still has only 130 EVs in its fleet of 4,745 vehicles, according to George Carter III, who oversees the fleet.

Another 1,900 are hybrids, including some Ford SUVs, which have since been phased out by the manufacturer. But the agency did better in 2017, Carter said, and most 2018 purchases will come in the last half of the year. He said EVs will replace many older hybrids.

Among local governments, Seattle has converted 24 percent of its fleet to EVs and leads the pack, according to Coltura. But that city is still buying a lot of gas-powered vehicles.

In Thurston County, fleet managers have just two all-electric passenger vehicles and two plug-in hybrids in its fleet of more than 350 vehicles. Only about 20 vehicles are passenger cars, which are most viable for EV replacements, according to fleet services manager Bryan Hanks.

But the law allows alternative fuels such as natural gas or propane, and Hanks said county commissioners authorized $230,000 in 2016 to convert 17 light trucks to run on propane and install propane-fueling equipment.

The Evergreen State College does not have a single EV in its fleet of 63 vehicles, according to Coltura's count. Campus spokesman Zach Powers said Evergreen was an early buyer of electric cars vehicles in 2006, but batteries didn’t last and those cars were sold after several years.

Evergreen maintenance crews still use small electric-powered carts around campus. But after the Great Recession, the college favored cheap replacement vehicles, which often were state surplus passenger vans, Powers said.

Because the school typically needs 12- and 15-person vans, the college is watching to see when cost-effective electric-powered versions go on the market, Powers said.

Because one barrier to adding electric cars is the lack of charging stations, Carter said DES is looking at ways to add more at state-used buildings. Officials are also looking at paying for them using penalties paid to the state through Volkswagen's settlement of its ational emissions-fraud violations.

The Legislature helped this year by providing $9 million in its capital construction budget. Some of that will be used for grants to local governments that want to install charging stations, according to Moulton.

The introduction of the Chevy Bolt helps knock down another barrier – namely, short vehicle range, Carter said. The new Bolt is an electric passenger car that can go 238 miles, further than the earlier Volt, he said.

Though it's unlikely the State Patrol or local police agencies will convert their fuel-hog cruisers and SUVs to electric powered cars anytime soon, agencies can do better.

They should consider life-cycle costs of a vehicle when buying a replacement to see if the EV or plug-in hybrid option is cheaper long term. Coltura found the Bolt is cheaper to buy and operate over a decade years than a Toyota Prius hybrid or even a small Ford Focus SE.

Local government leaders can also question staff requests for big vehicles rarely used to haul large groups or equipment.

State and local governments are already eligible to buy electric and hybrid vehicles through the state’s master contract at good prices negotiated with car makers, Sen. Guy Palumbo, a Democrat from south Snohomish County, is exploring how best to give Commerce authority to enforce the EV mandate.

In our state, the transportation sector is a good place to reduce emissions. It represents the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases that scientists have linked clearly to a warming planet.

Government agencies should lead by example.