Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Op-ed: Now is the Time to Electrify Public Vehicle Fleets

Matthew Metz is the founder and co-executive director of Coltura, a Seattle-based non-profit that is working to transition the country to zero-emission vehicles. He wrote the following op-ed in reference to Coltura’s recent report on Washington State’s public fleet electric vehicle compliance. 

State and local governments in Washington own more than 30,000 vehicles. Roughly 99 percent of these vehicles run on gasoline or diesel, consuming more than 30 million gallons annually and contributing to the growing climate crisis. While much has been written about the benefits of transitioning away from harmful greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, many people do not realize that state law actually requires it.

Effective June 1, 2018, state law RCW 43.19.648, passed in 2007, requires that all state agencies and local government subdivisions must, “to the extent determined practicable… satisfy one hundred percent of their fuel usage for operating publicly owned vessels, vehicles, and construction equipment from electricity or biofuel.”

So, how are we doing? Not well. New data published in “Recharge Required” shows most Washington public jurisdictions have not taken steps toward compliance or have only barely begun. The cities of Auburn, Federal Way, Kennewick, Kent, and Yakima have no electric vehicles (EVs) in their fleets. With the exception of Seattle, the 14 largest cities in the state only have between one and seven EVs in their respective fleets. Our counties are not doing any better. King County leads the way with nine EVs. Benton, Clark, Spokane, and Whatcom have no EVs in their fleets, and Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Yakima counties reported five or fewer EVs in their fleets. Even Seattle and King County, relative leaders in electrification, still buy far more gas and diesel vehicles than electrics.

What’s worse, there’s been no enforcement of the law. Public vehicle purchases are usually made quietly and under the political radar. The State Department of Commerce, charged with overseeing compliance by hundreds of state agencies and local governments with the law, has only two people working on the issue. Furthermore, regulations promulgated by the Department do not effectively implement the law nor do they provide meaningful guidance to public entities seeking to comply. Only four of the 31 local governmental entities surveyed have an actionable plan for electrifying their fleet. Annual, legally-mandated reporting by state agencies and local governments to Commerce on progress implementing the fleet electrification law has not occurred.

Besides offering numerous health and climate benefits, compliance with state law would yield significant cost savings and economic benefits. Every gallon of gas burned emits 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is the main driver of climate change. It is no wonder the transportation sector accounts for nearly half of all carbon dioxide pollution in the state, resulting in increased risks of asthma, heart and lung disease, dementia and cancers – especially in children and people living near busy roads.

As for economic benefits, EVs have lower fuel and maintenance costs, as well as considerably lower annual operating costs and total costs of ownership. Electricity prices are more stable than gasoline and diesel prices, making budgeting for EVs much more accurate, and less subject to oil price shocks. Public fleet electrification would place Washington’s businesses, utilities, and governments on the leading edge of the EV revolution and help it remain competitive as the global trend towards vehicle electrification continues. Furthermore, as EV purchases increase, greater price reductions and technology improvements will occur for later buyers as EVs move through the experience curve and economies of scale are realized.

While barriers to one hundred percent EV compliance still exist, EVs are practicable for much of our government fleets today. The state of Washington bought 125 all-electric Chevrolet Bolts for its fleet last year. King County Metro has purchased three electric buses, with plans to purchase 73 more by 2020, and to electrify its entire fleet by 2030. The City of Seattle has 175 EVs in its fleet, and recently opened a 156-unit EV charging facility in the municipal garage.

Like all important changes to the status quo, the shift to electric fleets requires an engaged citizenry, civil servants dedicated to implementing the law, and vigilant oversight by elected officials. The law is already on the books and the technology is ready for deployment. It is time to embrace a clean future for our government fleets.