Seattle the city cited as an exception in why Washington is violating its EV legislation

Why Washington Is Violating Its EV Legislation

By Roy L Hales

In 2007 the state of Washington passed what may be the most progressive Electric Vehicle law on the planet. Vehicles belonging to the state should have been using electric or biofuel powered vehicles by 2015. Every city, county and local public entity was to achieve this by June 1, 2018. Unfortunately, no steps were taken to implement this legislation. Matthew Metz is the co-executive director of Coltura and the lead author of the white paper “Recharge Recommended,” which explains why Washington is violating its EV legislation and how this can be remedied.

Seattle: The Bright Spot

“In general most jurisdictions aren’t even close to compliance. The vast majority of their vehicles, +99%, are run on gas or diesel,” explains Metz.

Cities like Yakima, and Auburn have yet to purchase a single EV. Bellingham has one. Whatcom and Clark counties do not use any EVs.

“There’s a few exceptions, the city  of Seattle is doing a pretty good job, especially in the passenger vehicle area.”

Seattle recently purchased 178 EVs. Roughly 26% of the city’s passenger vehicles are electric.1

Washington State’s Successes & Failures

Recharge Recommended details the state government’s successes and failures:

“The state fleets surveyed are comprised of more than 97% gas or diesel-fueled vehicles … On December 7, 2015, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced the “Washington State Electric Fleets Initiative” which required that 20% of all new passenger vehicle purchases be electric by 2017. Based on the state fleet data sampled, Washington State government exceeded the 20% benchmark in 2017. The Department of Enterprise Services (which operates more than half of the state’s fleet), however, planned 52 gas car purchases and only three electric car purchases in 2018, falling well short of the Governor’s targets. The Department of Natural Resources plans to purchase five cars in 2018, all electric.”2

Metz says, “They only have one person in charge of complying with the law in the department of Commerce, so it is grossly understaffed. The Department of Enterprise services, which manages the fleet for more than half of state vehicles … [has] a committed person in charge of purchasing. They purchase for a lot of state agencies, but a lot of times the end user requests trumps that.”

[For example,]”Someone in the Department of Parks will say we need this kind of vehicle. We need a pick-up.  Or they describe a use case which may be difficult for electric vehicles to follow, such as high ground clearance or four wheel drive. Those are significant barriers as well.”

Why Washington Is Violating Its EV Legislation

“In general, most jurisdictions are unaware of the law, or don’t believe they have to comply with it or think it is mostly just aspirational. Only 4 of the 31 jurisdictions that were surveyed actually have a plan for electrifying their fleet. And fewer than 1% of vehicles owned by public entities in the state are electric.”

“I think there is a lack of familiarity with the law; a lack of need to comply; a string bias in favour of the status quo. I think those are the three main factors. Each jurisdiction is going to vary a little bit, but in general I think that is the case.”

“A lot of the fleet managers came up as diesel mechanics. That is what they know; that is what they are comfortable with.  Shifting to electric is something of a cultural shift for them, that they have not been prepared to make.”

Not Interested In Nissan Leafs

In Recharge Recommended, Metz and his associates compare the real costs of a Nissan Leaf, hybrid Ford CMax and  gas powered Ford Focus. Though the Leaf’s acquisition cost is slightly higher, over the course of a decade it will have only a fraction of the fuel or maintenance costs. When you factor this in, Leaf owners could save about $11,0000 over the gas powered car.3

So why aren’t Washington’s local and state governments buying more Leafs and other EVs?

Metz explains, “In general, Leafs are a sideshow in government. No one is really interested in them. They aren’t politically sexy and so whatever happens to them is of minimal interest to most public officials. So even a lot of jurisdictions in Washington who are supposedly very eager to take on climate change and very concerned about it, that doesn’t fall through to implementation with respect to Leafs.”

Going Forward

Metz does not expect the state and local governments to come into compliance with their EV law overnight.

“As fleets replace their older vehicles, they need to replace them with electrics … If there were a determined effort to comply with the law, by 2030 all vehicles could and should be electric.”

In Recharge Required, Metz lays out a series of policy recommendations for implementing Washington’s adoption of  clean cars:

  • “The health and climate costs of air and carbon pollution caused by gasoline vehicles should be factored into the total cost of ownership calculation. The American Lung Association calculates those costs at $1.15 per gallon.
  • ” … Regulations need to strictly define under what circumstances a gas vehicle can be purchased over an electric one. The ability to satisfy unusual or occasional uses with other fleet vehicles (such as annual trip of 300 miles or occasional rough road use) should be considered when considering non-EV purchases.
  • “An auditing system and meaningful penalties for governments that are in violation of the law would encourage compliance. Such penalties could include being barred from purchasing fuel and vehicles under state master purchasing contracts.”
  • “To facilitate public oversight of fleet purchasing, planned vehicle purchases should be published in a prominent location on the jurisdiction’s website 60 days prior to the actual purchase, absent exigent circumstance. The notice of intended purchase should provide information as to the vehicle to be replaced, the proposed replacement pur- chase, and, if the proposed vehicle is not electric, stated reasons why not.”4
 Photo credits: I-5 southbound traffic approaching Downtown Seattle by SounderBruce via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); Podcast image: various graphs taken from Coltura’s white paper “Recharge Required“; Coltura’s associated infogram

 The podcast above incorporates more of my interview plus select quotes from the comments Peter Moulton, of the Washington State Department of Commerce, made below.


Show 4 footnotes

  1.  Matthew Metz et al, Recharge Recommended,, p 12
  2.  Ibid, p 15
  3.  Ibid, p 10
  4.  Ibid, p 25

5 thoughts on “Why Washington Is Violating Its EV Legislation”

  1. The law passed in 2007 doesn’t require all public agencies to achieve 100% compliance, it directed Commerce to develop rules to move towards compliance “to the extent practicable.” These rules have already been in effect for agencies since 2013, today’s date applies only to local governments.

    While the legislative intent was certainly laudable, Commerce was never provided enforcement authority or funding to develop and implement the rules, which impact over 1,100 local governments throughout the state.

    The report states Commerce has enforcement responsibility and recommends redrafting the rules to specify consequences for non-compliance, yet towards the end acknowledges Commerce lacks such authority. Agencies can’t simply assign themselves the ability to impose penalties or implement other substantive enforcement tools through rulemaking, this would take new legislation.

    Coltura calls for expanded funding of charging infrastructure and assistance with the increased upfront capital costs of electric vehicles, but fails to mention that Commerce received, for the first time, roughly $10 million in state funds last session to provide grants for local governments and retail electrical utilities to actually do so. There is also no mention of the $17 million in federal VW settlement funding being administered by the Department of Ecology that is dedicated to charging infrastructure over the next decade.

    It recommends a clear EV-first policy unless there’s demonstrated need for a gas or diesel-powered vehicle. This is the core directive of the existing rules, which detail a decision-making process that nearly always justifies purchasing plug-in electric passenger vehicles. Heavier-class plug-in vehicles, such SUVs, pickups and larger vehicles, are just now coming into the market though at a substantial price premium. Cash-constrained agencies and local governments are challenged with reconciling the upfront difference in capital costs with the promise of longer-term operating savings. Existing budgeting and appropriation processes are not designed to accommodate arguments about lifecycle benefits, which is why paying down the price differential is an emerging priority for funding programs.

    The report claims there is no guidance regarding how total cost-of-ownership is to be calculated, even though Commerce developed a very comprehensive analytical tool, based on vehicles available through the state master contract, that has been available to agencies for many years. The report fails to examine this tool, or offer any recommendations for how it might be improved. A similar tool is nearly complete for local governments, which have a much greater diversity of vehicle classes and are not required to purchase off the state’s contract.

    It highlights the improved 230+ mile range of the Chevy Bolt and availability of fast charging along major highway corridors, and questions why more weren’t purchased during the 2015-2017 timeframe. Bolts were only available in Washington starting late last summer, actual range given the state’s topography and climate is often much less, and there are only a dozen fast charging stations outside of central Puget Sound compatible with the Bolt. The number and location of these (CCS-compliant) fast chargers is growing quickly, but nearly all have been installed in the last year.

    Coltura says allowance for use of natural gas or propane is not authorized by statute, yet RCW 43.19.648(2)(b) states: “Compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, or propane may be substituted for electricity or biofuel if the department of commerce determines that electricity and biofuel are not reasonably available.” Commerce addressed this during rulemaking, and required use of these alternate fossil fuels when electricity and biofuel are not reasonably available, a determination set forth in the rules.

    Lastly, they believe Commerce was required to implement a phased-in schedule for compliance. The legislation does not require Commerce to adopt a phased-in schedule, but rather to address the option during rulemaking, which was done.

    To really move the needle, the legislature needs to empower someone with enforcement authority (not necessarily Commerce) and significant funding for program administration and implementation. Otherwise, it will remain simply a “moral argument” struggling to gain traction against tight budgetary constraints and recalcitrant bureaucracies.

  2. This is another one of those comments which makes me suspect the writer did not read the article he is commenting on. One of Coltura’s suggestions for moving forward, quoted above, that ” … regulations need to strictly define under what circumstances a gas vehicle can be purchased over an electric one.” This is obviously endorsing “compliance to the extent practicable.”

    Something smells fishy, so I googled your name.

    Are you the Peter Moulton who is the Policy Section Manager, State Energy Office, Washington State Department of Commerce?

    If so, you should know better.

    So is that long diatribe just a lot of spin?


  3. Roy, I would encourage you to read the actual rules, and reflect on the recommendations in my final paragraph. Yes, I work in the State Energy Office and coordinated development of both sets of rules. The legislature provided no enforcement capacity and no funding to implement the rules. Only in the past year, due to internal restructuring, have we been able to assign an actual staff member to oversee the program. This isn’t a diatribe or spin, just reality.

    1. I actually find what you say in your first paragraph essentially agrees with what Coltura said. Future purchases should be EVs first, “to the extent practicable.” I.E.- If they can’t do the job, use a gas car, or diesel or whatever kind of car is needed.

      (BTW: I live on a remote island where there are no fast charging stations. I have a steep driveway, which only a 4-wheel drive can go up. I may purchase an electric at some future date, but for the moment I drive a gas car.)

      I do not think Coltura is blaming you for the lack of compliance. The specific reference they made to your department was there was only one person “in charge of complying with the law in the department of Commerce, so it is grossly understaffed.” That would seem to agree with your comments about lack of any enforcement capacity or funding.

      The real question is how can Washington move forward? And how long will it take?

      In our interview Metz said, “If there were a determined effort to comply with the law, by 2030 all vehicles could and should be electric.”

      Personally, also I think the transportation sector will look very different by then. Most of the price and range challenges that electrics are still facing should be historic.

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