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Seattle rolls out electric car initiative

Seattle "electric car enthusiast" Lee Colleton's Twitter feed -- @sleepylemur -- is one part local travelogue, one part guide to charging stations, one part commentary -- "" (Image: Lee Colleton via Twitter)

Seattle “electric car enthusiast” Lee Colleton’s Twitter feed — @sleepylemur — is one part local travelogue, one part guide to charging stations, one part commentary — “Electric cars are a socialist plot” (Image: Lee Colleton via Twitter)

It’s been a big couple days for changing the way people travel to and from Capitol Hill. Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced Drive Clean Seattle, a new city initiative to improve infrastructure for electric vehicles (or EV’s), electrifying the city’s own vehicle fleet, and continue Seattle’s ongoing conquest to cut carbon emissions and pollution from transit. And for current and aspiring electric car owners on Capitol Hill, the initiative brings good tidings of city investment in encouraging their green wheels.

“We will work with residents, transit agencies, and businesses to promote the use of Seattle City Light’s carbon neutral electricity to move around the city. Transportation is Seattle’s leading source of greenhouse gases and this plan will allow us to work aggressively to reduce climate impacts,” Murray said in a statement.

The initiative has some high-reaching goals with three major components. The first is to “lead by example” and reduce carbon emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet by 50% through investing in more fuel efficient and all-electric vehicles and figuring out ways to cut car idle times. Then there is Murray’s stated goal to “enable and support the adoption of 15,000 electric vehicles by 2025.” This, Murray says, will be achieved by tripling the number direct current (DC) rapid charging stations in the city for all electric vehicles— like the Nissan Leaf, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV series, and the famed Tesla—on both private and public property as well as exploring different ways the city can help finance and install residential home charging stations, starting with two pilot projects: an on-bill repayment system for the installation of residential charging stations and time-of-day-pricing for the actual charging.

All of these proposals are still in the conceptual phase. The city doesn’t have any hard numbers on either the cost of the various public investments — save for DC fast chargers, which are estimated to cost between $50,000-$80,000 for installation, operation and maintenance—nor the nuts-and-bolts technicalities of the proposed pilot projects.

But the city wants you to be stoked anyways in the meantime. “It is the most comprehensive plan that we know of to increase the electrification of our transportation system and to reduce carbon pollution,” said Jessica Finn Coven, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.

Seattle has been dubbed a electric vehicle hub in the past in both usage and infrastructure, especially when compared with other major U.S. cities. The International Council On Clean Transportation ranked Seattle as the fifth highest new electric vehicles sales share and the 3rd most extensive publicly accessible charging infrastructure (San Francisco, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Diego beat us out on both fronts).

But despite the title, publicly accessible electric vehicle charging stations aren’t abundant throughout the city. Downtown Seattle has a heavy concentration of primarily AC Level 2 charging stations (which give a twenty mile charge every hour) and a few DC fast charge stations (these give a faster, fifty mile charge after twenty minutes). Capitol Hill is home a handful, with two DC fast charge stations in the Harvard Market parking garage on Broadway, one fast charge station in the REO Flats parking garage on 14th, and several level 2 chargers in the Central Co-Op parking garage on Madison. But the Central District, and all of Southeast Seattle are devoid of any charging stations at all.

“The main barrier [to broader electric vehicle usage is the charging infrastructure,” said Finn Coven.

For Lee Colleton, a Beacon Hill resident, owner of a Nissan Leaf Mitsubishi i-MiEV and general electric car enthusiast, that’s a serious problem. He regularly drives from his home to the Hill to use the scattered DC fast chargers.

“We still have zero public electric car charging stations that are south of I-90 and east of I-5,” he said. “They’re not evenly distributed throughout the city.”

The city is aware of this disparity, says Finn Coven. She says the Equity and Environment Steering Committee—a group of leaders and representatives from communities of color in Seattle which was established last spring when Murray launched his Equity and Environment initiative—will be examining the city’s eventual Drive Clean Seattle pilot projects and investment proposals through an equity lens and serving as a general advisory role. But Finn Coven says that placement of city financed chargers will come down to both the availability of public land and property owners willing to collaborate as well as area demand and site accessibility.

“It’s both demand and it’s accessibility. We want people to get to those chargers, we want people to know they’re there.” (It’s hard to gauge local demand for electric cars. The city doesn’t have any readily available data. Colleton says that there are about 50 active members of the Seattle Electric Vehicle association, a fraction of which are from Capitol Hill.)

Colleton didn’t used to have a driveway or garage to have a level 2 charging system installed, and had to either run an extension cord from his home to the curb where he parked to charge car overnight. He wants to see the city amend transportation codes to allow charging stations on public streets in the right of way.

“Most of the chargers are in private parking lots, some are in public lots, but none are in the street, like parking meters,” he said. “if you want to have wide access to chargers, you need to allow right of way chargers.”

Finn Coven said that pushing code changes for chargers in the right of way is not a priority. “This is certainly something we’re looking at, [but] we’re just not ready to say that this is the priority for the next year. We want to spend more time assessing the biggest barriers to EVs that people are facing and address those first. From our analysis to date, we’re starting with increasing fast chargers and new financing models for residential chargers,” she said.

As for Drive Clean Seattle’s intent to encourage residential charging with level 2 chargers, it’s all still conceptual at this point. Seattle City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen said that his department is still in the process of considering ideas around for both pilot projects (the on-bill repayment system for the installation of level 2 residential chargers and time-of-day electricity pricing for charging), but implementation will have to wait until fall, when City Light’s new customer billing computer information system—replacing a dated 15-year-old system—will be up and running.

“We’re still floating ideas,” said Thomsen. “But we know we’ve been handed this task by Mayor Murray and it’s up to us to deliver.”

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19 thoughts on “Seattle rolls out electric car initiative

  1. The main barrier to broader electric vehicle use is the price of entry for the individual. Considering that the city just bought a few rich people a bunch of bikes, maybe that means that the city will buy electric vehicles for all those people living south of I-90 and east of I-5 where the need for chargers has been identified. Or is this just a precursor to the morally elevated carbon-neutral people who can afford new electric vehicles and inflated real estate prices near infrastructure pricing out the poor in yet another set of Seattle neighborhoods? So progressive! The social welfare system is great when you’re on top.

    • This argument sounds familiar. Where? When? Oh! Got it. This was the same discussion that took place a century ago. Why do we need paved roads when most people ride horses? Automobiles are a toy for the rich. Why should we have to put up with those ugly poles and wires when gas lamps do a great job of lighting my home?

      Electric vehicle are once again just starting to become popular and like many other world changing innovations governments build the infrastructure. Fact: 100 years ago New York had scores of charging stations for the first attempt at electric cars.

    • You’re still not addressing the cost of buying a new electric, nor are you addressing the fact that this infrastructure expansion will almost certainly be connected to overpriced development in historically poor areas. Automobiles themselves are not toys for the rich. This particular rollout of amenities is only a benefit to the rich. It’s not an aesthetic argument, since I never mentioned anything about how the charging stations look. It’s an ethical argument, since this is part of pricing people out of a neighborhood.

    • I’d also like to point out that the other service I mentioned that the city recently agreed to pay for, the Pronto bike share system, is by no means high tech. Bicycles are fairly simple machines that are pretty inexpensive. You’d think those people living and working where most of the bike stations are could probably afford their own bicycles. My argument is not aesthetic or leveled against a particular technology. It’s ethical, aiming to point out that the benefits of what is touted as “progress” are regressive and will only be allotted to the few on top. It’s handy for those few that “progress” has such a magical moral halo effect that the people benefiting from it can simply force it through and feel good about themselves while exacerbating the city’s inequality.

  2. It would make more sense to me to create battery switching stations instead of charging stations.

    Not only are gas engine cars less expensive but used gas engine cars are dirt cheap. That is the problem with switching to an electric vehicle infrastructure.

    Not only is the cost of the electric vehicle prohibitive but the cost of insurance of a new electric vehicle is often overlooked. I drive a car made in the 80’s, a gas engine that gets 20 MPG if I’m lucky. I would love to drive an electric vehicle but can’t afford it as my insurance would just cost too much.

    Until old cars like mine are removed through a gas tax or some exchange incentive to switch to an electric vehicle these cars will only be for rich people and that doesn’t solve our problems.

    • The automakers all looked at battery swapping and came to the conclusion that it’s not really worth the engineering compromises you have to make when designing the car. The effectiveness of DC quick charging is also such that the comparative benefits of swapping are small.

      You can buy a very gently-used Nissan Leaf for somewhere around $9000-$11,000 right now. That’s more than the $3000 it might cost for a gas engined beater, but it’s still pretty reasonable.

      I’m curious if you’re speaking from experience when it comes to the cost of insurance or just speculating. Have you actually looked into an apples to apples comparison (i.e. not comparing a brand new Tesla to a 20-year old LeBaron)? I would think a Leaf is pretty comparable to a newish compact car insurance wise.

  3. So if the city is promoting City Light’s “carbon neutral electricity” for use in electric vehicles, then we must have a surplus of carbon neutral electricity. If so how many electric vehicles can we add before we use up this surplus and have to add more generating capacity or start using non-carbon neutral electricity. EV advocates talk like electricity is free, abundant, and carbon neutral. This is not true. If all gasoline powered vehicles were replaced with EVs, I believe we would have a problem.

    • In many ways, the energy in the PNW is effectively free and carbon neutral in that the vast majority of it comes from dams that were built and paid for a long time ago. Do they have their own environmental impacts? Of course, but the electricity they generate is pretty darn clean and incredibly cheap.

      Historically, Bonneville Power Administration, the pseudo-government organization that owns a lot of the hydroelectric assets in the PNW (and supplies SCL), has exported a lot of electricity down the coast to Northern and Southern California because there is such a large surplus. That being the case, I would imagine there’s a pretty large energy cushion that could be used to “fuel” EVs in the PNW before we near the end of our clean and cheap hydro capacity.

      With a little research, I’m sure you or somebody could do some back of the envelope calculations and arrive at a fairly accurate number pretty quickly.

    • Other countries reduce the cost of power at night etc when they have no demand. This is when I charge my nissan leaf.

      At 10c kWh with the nissan doing about 70 miles and needing about $2 of power to recharge it’s not doing a lot better than current gas engines (gas at $1.80, with small cars doing 50mpg or more).

      So yes, city light could help by reduced cost of power at night.

      Also – nissan leaf are very cheap currently 2011 can be had for $6.5k on craigslist. So the ‘price sensitive’ customer is approaching break even.

    • $2/70 miles = $0.0286/mile for a Leaf

      I would love to know where you can buy gas in Seattle for $1.80/gallon; I haven’t seen anything for under $2.10, which works out to $0.042/mile for a very efficient hybrid vehicle that gets 50 mpg ($2.10/50).

      That’s about 50% more expensive than an EV before you even factor in the reduced maintenance costs and potential discounted time-of-use electric rates that tilt the argument even more in favor of an EV.

    • Costco gas –

      Actually I’m being generous to the leaf. Worst case (run the heater / ac) you are down to 40miles range. It uses 1.3kw per hour to charge (12amps, 110v) and would take 19hrs (according to its display).

      approx. 26kw =$2.60 to go 40-70 miles.

      At Costco that would buy me almost 1.5 gallons of gas last week.

      As I say, 50mpg car does better – and you don’t have the worry of running out of power coming back from Ikea when the car steams up because you cant run the AC / heat.

      So reduce the cost of power, yes. And Nissan might consider a bigger batter and the problem that AC / heat kill the economics.

  4. I’d like to see funds directed towards fixing our crumbling infrastructure so it is safe before we layer on nice to have’s.

    I’d also like to see a truly green end to end process for vehicle battery production and disposal before I adopt the technology myself.

  5. We are three Capitol Hill residents sharing one car. We sold our gas-guzzling ’89 Mustang last year, and we love our new Leaf. In response to one of the earlier posters, our insurance did not change by one cent when we switched from Mustang to Leaf. Exactly the same. Granted gasoline is relatively cheap right now, but there is more “cost” to the planet in driving a fossil-burning vehicle than is reflected in gas prices.

    • I think the argument is that city light charges you 4c ish kWh for the first block of power you use, then 10c for the rest. With mr leaf outside you will use that first block and pay 10c for the rest. The ask is for the ev owner to get power at the 4c price.

      We could also consider what LA provides. Free hov usage and free on street parking for EVs. Go on seattle, show leadership !

  6. Thanks for publishing this story, CHS. Electrifying our transportation systems is the key to rapidly decarbonizing our city, so I applaud all efforts in this direction.

    To clarify, I now regularly keep my EV in a garage where I can charge from an ordinary wall outlet. I’d rather that the city address this issue of changing ordinances to support right-of-way charging because encouraging people with driveways and garages to drive plug-in cars is not an equitable means of promoting the initiative, in my opinion. Even in the newly-built apartment where I live, there is only one outlet: the residents who use the other dozen parking spaces do not have an option to plug-in. Further, the building only has garage parking for 1/3 of the addresses. For people who live in older apartments which don’t have any electrical outlets near the off-street parking, the situation is even more bleak.

    Relying on DCFC infrastructure for regular charging will result in confusion and delay. The fast-charging systems need to augment on-street charging, not be relied upon for routine and everyday use. One of the best things about driving an electric car is the relatively small amount of time needed to keep them charged. It takes only seconds per day to plug in and unplug the car, compared to the frequent fueling required by conventional vehicles. If people must instead rely on a handful of DCFC stations, there will be queues and a resulting increase in already high prices for that service which approach the cost of combustion engine driving. Charging via AC is much cheaper by comparison and the city should include accessible L1 & L2 charging in its plans.