In the nearly 2½ years since I last wrote about electric vehicles, some things have changed — but too much has not.
In Rainier Beach, for example, the dearth of charging stations I lamented in late 2019 is no longer. There are now three charging locations in Rainier Valley — not anywhere near enough, though an improvement over zero.
The lack of progress on getting more EVs for low- and moderate-income people on the road remains disappointing.
Transportation is the largest source of climate pollution in the state, so I was encouraged to learn about Gov. Inslee’s December proposal to provide incentives up to $7,500 for the purchase of EVs. It would have provided $5,000 for a used zero-emission vehicle as well. While the income limits were higher than I think make sense — capped at $250,000 for an individual — the $100 million plan did limit the price of a sedan to $55,000 for those receiving the rebate. There was also an additional $5,000 rebate for low-income people.
But once again, the Legislature was unable or unwilling to get it done.
In the end, only $25 million was earmarked this year for incentives with no clear method for how they would be implemented, though they are designed to help people living in communities overburdened by pollution. There would be an “interagency electric vehicle coordinating council” to develop the program.
There’s an additional $95 million for incentives in the next legislative session, but there is no requirement to use the money for rebates, according to reporting by Seattle Times environmental reporter Nicholas Turner.
When I wrote about EVs in 2019, I received two types of responses. On one side, the sentiment was, “You liberals are going to have to pry my gasoline-powered car out of my cold, dead hands,” and on the other, it was, “Why should we invest in cars at all? People should be walking or biking or taking public transportation to get around!”
While I would expect the attachment to fossil fuels by some conservatives, it’s the second sentiment that was most disheartening.
As the median house price in transit-rich Seattle is now more than $850,000, the city is becoming affordable for only the most affluent. Low- and medium-income people are being displaced, and some communities of color are bearing a disproportionate burden. The last census showed, for example, 20% of Black people leaving the heart of the Central District, many to South King County.
It might be easy to walk or bike to work downtown if you are a white-collar worker living on Capitol Hill, but it’s not if you live in Auburn. It’s even easier to get by without a car when you live in the city and have the ability to work from home. And while better and more accessible public transit should be a key goal, those projects take time and people need a way to get to their jobs now — quickly and at all hours of the day.
Leah Missik, the Washington transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said we need to tackle the problem from all directions.
“It has been really unfortunate that people try to pit electrification of transportation against mode shifts like transit, walking and biking,” she said. “Because the reality is that both are important.”
According to a Climate Solutions report, we will need a 95% reduction in emissions from 2020 levels by 2050 to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius or below. In order to achieve this goal, nearly all passenger and light-duty vehicles on the road would need to be electrified and the vehicle miles we travel, or VMT, reduced by 27%.
So the bottom line is we can’t take an either-or approach if we want to avoid climate catastrophe — we have to do it all, and fast.
As Missik said: “The time to act on a lot of these issues was already some time ago, and we have made progress. But we can’t stop in each legislative session. We need to go big. Getting ways for lower-income folks to access EVs is a part of this huge puzzle that we need to do, and we can’t just continue pushing it off year after year.”
But expensive EVs like Teslas will continue to dominate until we can make owning an EV comparable in cost to owning a gas-powered car, which means we have to stop punting the problem to the next Legislature and stop the half measures that won’t get us close to meeting the climate goals we desperately need to meet — for the sake of our long-term survival.
Chair of the Washington House Environment and Energy Committee, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, said there’s a “virtuous cycle” in EV adoption that also needs to be taken into consideration. “Every person that buys an EV makes it that much easier for the next person to buy an EV,” as more people realize it can be an option for them, he said. “And every person that switches from a gas car to an EV is not just helping the climate, but they’re also improving the air quality for everybody around them.”
Greater adoption will also help to dispel the pervasive notion that EVs are just toys for rich tech bros. At 60% of the EVs on the road in Washington, Teslas — which range in price between about $47,000 and a jaw-dropping $150,000 — are far and away the most common EV on the road in the state, but this is by policy design, not the natural order. We should not be the only state on the West Coast with no EV rebate to make more moderately priced EVs like Bolts or Leafs accessible — even Texas has one. As a state that is supposedly a national climate leader, we can and should do better.