Charging ahead: Imperatives for the electric vehicle revolution
May 12, 2023 at 5:05 a.m.
Transportation is the biggest contributor to global warming in North America, as cars and pickups account for 15% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to stop the warming, we simply must stop burning oil.
Big cities have buses, light rail, sometimes even subways. But here in Whatcom County, it's harder to get around without a car. Our buses don't run everywhere or late at night. It’s impractical for many people to walk, bike or bus in winter, and most commuters drive solo; less than 11% carpool. And even with federal subsidies, most electric vehicles, with adequate range are still expensive.
Even though more than half of Whatcom County's electricity still comes from fossil fuels, the average EV still produces two-thirds less emissions than an average gasoline-fueled vehicle. And when the grid gets fully green, that number will rise to 98%, which makes the case compelling. We need to shift to EVs.
The cost problem is on its way to solution. EVs will soon compete in sticker price with gasoline cars, while point-of-purchase discounts based on the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) expand the used EV market. EVs are also cheaper to run: At 12 cents per kWh (kilowatt hour) for home charging, an average EV costs $3.50 per hundred miles driven, while a 25 mpg gasoline car costs about $17. With far fewer moving parts, EVs also don’t need oil changes or much other regular maintenance.
And sales are growing: EVs exceeded 5% of U.S. car and light truck sales last year. In fact, a dozen makers plan to stop building internal combustion vehicles as early as 2030. By then, EV sales may exceed half the total.
Charging remains a key concern
Charging an electric car is not like filling up on gasoline. If you drive less each day than the 150-300 mile range of most current EVs, home charging works best, at least if you can afford it and have access. The IRA provides a 30% tax credit up to $1,000, more than enough to install a level-2 charger, which can charge your car overnight. If you commute to work and your employer installs chargers, you can charge at work.
If you drive a lot though, you may need to recharge while on the road, so easy access to public charging remains a concern for would-be buyers. And although DC fast chargers can charge a car in less than an hour, using them can cost two to five times more than charging at home.
The IRA also offers up to $100,000 to businesses installing multiple chargers, an attraction for guests at hotels, motels and private rentals. The state also offers grants for chargers installed by local governments, tribes, multi-unit housing, ports and schools, and in rural areas. New building codes in many areas require new residential and commercial construction to be charger-ready. Whatcom County Council will review such codes in July. We might even follow King County, which already requires new apartment buildings to install actual chargers, not just EV-ready wiring, in 10% of their parking spaces.
Public charging stations should thus be a last resort, but we will still need them. If 40% of our cars are EVs by 2035, almost 40,000 Whatcom homes will need chargers. And the four in 10 Whatcom County residents who rent their homes, plus many older Bellingham homes that lack garages and driveways, will account for about 27,000 more cars that need charging. Power outages, depleted batteries and providing for passing motorists also mean that we need lots of public charging stations. Bellingham figures about 4,000; the rest of Whatcom County, maybe 4,500 more.
However, public charging is more expensive. The City of Bellingham and commercial vendors charge from 25 to 61 cents for public charging. Over an average EV life span, the difference between home and public charging is at least $13,000. This means that lower-income renters will often pay more to drive than the more affluent.
Also, how tenable or safe is it to leave a car charging for hours, blocks from work or home? An all-EV fleet will also need more power from the grid — more reason to charge at home, as home charging will occur mostly at night while other power demands are low. In sum, making sure low-income drivers and renters have access to safe, affordable charging is an absolute necessity as we pursue a just transition to a climate-neutral future.
Change our thinking
To make the transition to electric transportation successfully, the biggest thing we need to change is our thinking. It’s not practical to replace filling stations with charging stations. When petroleum replaced horses, we no longer fed our transportation at home. Now that electricity is replacing petroleum, we need to “feed” our transportation at home again, and it will take cooperation among all levels of government, builders, landlords, business owners and residents to make this transformation happen.
Stevan Harrell is an EV driver in Bellingham and a member of the Whatcom County Climate Impacts Advisory Committee. Fellow committee member Ray Kamada of Sudden Valley is a former Department of Defense consultant who has researched and written extensively on climate change, energy conservation and renewable energy.