Washington’s Electric Vehicle (EV) statistics look great on a national level.  The that are EVs is higher in Washington than in any other state and the number of public charging stations and outlets makes Washington fourth in the country.

Yet Washington’s high rankings in some ways speak more to the general absence of EV infrastructure nationwide. EVs make up only 1.6% of new registrations in Washington, and the infrastructure consists of a mere 1,700 stations and outlets primarily concentrated in the Seattle area.  Addressing this lack of infrastructure as well as the limitations of EVs is critical for making them a practical option for the average Washingtonian.

Charging Station Infrastructure Needs to be Improved 

At first glance, 1,700 seems like a respectable network, especially since only seven other states boast numbers over 1,000. However, only 40 of these stations and outlets are DC Fast charging stations that allow a driver to obtain an 80% charge in about 30 minutes and only eight of them are located east of Bellevue.

The remaining stations are Level II stations that require up to six hours to charge a battery.  Plans to add more stations are in the works, but have experienced significant setbacks.  The Seattle area was hoping to receive 22 new fast charging stations that were to be constructed by the electric car charging company ECOtality.  However, the construction was put on hold last year when ECOtality went bankrupt after accepting $115 million in federal funding for this task and other similar projects around the country.

This lack of infrastructure, particularly in Eastern Washington, makes an EV impractical for many people. The development of fast charging stations will play a key role in making EVs appealing to more users. While they are still not as fast as pumping gas, they’re much faster than Level II stations and will make long trips in EVs feasible.

The ability to charge at home is also a concern  Since most of the public stations in Washington are slow charging Level II stations, home charging can often be the most practical option, even though it takes between 8-20 hours to charge an EV from a standard 120 volt outlet.  Unfortunately, many people do not have access to a power outlet when their car is parked at home, particularly apartment dwellers. A recent nationwide survey by the Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that only 52% of the survey respondents would have access to an outlet to charge their cars at home.

Plans for Infrastructure Improvement 

Washington lawmakers and state agencies are working toward developing more EV infrastructure.  WSDOT is prepared to allocate $1.2 million to help finish the remaining 11 fast charging stations left uncompleted by ECOtality, but it is hoping that CarCharging Group, the company that purchased ECOtality’s network, will complete the job.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed 2014 Supplemental Budget directed $5 million to for installing new fast charging stations. The legislature didn’t grant approval but did direct $250,000 to The Joint Transportation Committee to evaluate Washington’s network of charging stations and to recommend potential business models that can be used to expand the network.  In particular, the committee will be looking at the balance between private and public development.

Washington State House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41st) envisions a partnership between the private and public sector and believes that it will take effort from both sectors to fully implement the needed infrastructure.  She says that “the government should help incentivize innovation but should not attempt to pick the winners and losers”.  Clibborn’s ideal would be to create an atmosphere where it is “profitable for businesses like hotels and restaurants to implement their own charging stations.”

Washington State Representative Reuven Carlyle (D-36th) says that “the private marketplace is being incredibly aggressive and successful at prioritizing EV infrastructure because there is market demand.”  Similarly, Carlyle “wants to see the public sector in WA be aggressive, thoughtful and balanced.”  An eventual statewide network will likely be contributed to by many different actors.  Carlyle feels that the role of the state in this infrastructure patchwork is to “supplement a comprehensive and integrated charging network by helping fill gaps where private interests are absent.”

Private groups are also working to develop infrastructure.  The Seattle Electric Vehicle Association’s (SEVA) Charge for Change program provides a number of free Level II charging stations along I-5.  SEVA also has plans to bolster the fast charging network in Washington.  SEVA President Stephen Johnsen is working to raise funds and says that “the high expense of fast charging stations is greatest challenge.”  Johnsen remains optimistic saying “I would like to see top priority sites put in within the next two years and secondary sites within the next five years.”

Former Washington State Representative Deborah Eddy (D-48th) worked to pass legislation promoting the development of EV infrastructure and she’s not particularly worried about EV and infrastructure progression.  Rather she describes EVs as an “emerging technology and market that may take time to realize its potential.”  At the height of this potential, Eddy envisions a balance between personal EVs and an extensive EV fleet for the public transit system.  “With the development of driverless car technology, it may be possible to increase the practicality of public transit by using an expanded network of driverless EVs to conveniently transport people to the major transit stations.”

Customers are concerned about the costs and limitations of EVs 

EV owners avoid expensive gas prices, but the initial cost is daunting, especially for EVs with longer ranges and more cargo space. The Tesla Model S has a 265-mile range, but with a  $81,070 price tag, this car is more of a status symbol than an eco-friendly solution. The EV version of Toyota’s Rav4 is a large SUV, but at $49,800, it is twice as expensive as the standard gas Rav4 and only has a 103 mile range.

Currently, the IRS is offering a tax credit of up to $7,500 for the purchase of an EV and Washington State exempts new EV purchases from State motor vehicle sales and use taxes; however, many customers may still find that a conventional gas vehicle or a hybrid is more practical and economical.  In addition, these incentives are limited. The federal tax credit will be phased out as EVs purchases increase, and the Washington exemptions are currently set to expire in 2015.  Representative Carlyle noted that renewing these exemptions would be considered during the next legislative session.

Battery Trouble

Another looming concern for new EV buyers is the battery.  The Nissan Leaf has experienced some problems with its battery losing charging capabilities. Nissan responded by warranting the battery to retain at least 70% of its charging capacity through 75,000 miles or six years. However, a warranty does not fix the problem and raises considerable concerns for resale value. If a Leaf owner needs to replace the battery beyond the warranty period they can expect to pay around $5,500.

Some Good News for Future Development.

The battery is the most expensive component in an EV because of the large size needed to replicate the power of a combustion engine. While physical limitations make decreasing battery size difficult, lowering production costs can help reduce the overall cost of EVs.  Tesla is planning on building a $5 billion factory to increase battery output and lower costs. By 2020 it is expected to produce more batteries than were produced worldwide in 2013. Several states in the Southwest are currently being evaluated for the project.

The Future of EV Use in Washington

The potential of EVs is considerable, but their limitations and large price tags still dissuade many customers.  EV cost is out of Washington’s control, but there are some things that can be done in the meantime to help market these vehicles. Steve Marshall, the Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions, believes that raising awareness and educating people about the cost benefits of EVs will be critical as infrastructure improves and prices come down.

He says that “putting up more EV charging station signs would be an inexpensive way to increase awareness.”  These signs would decrease anxiety over EVs by alerting citizens that charging stations actually exist.  As prices come down, Marshall also believes that looking at the full life cost of EVs is critical.  “I calculated my energy consumption and I saved $2,400 in energy last year by replacing my 25-30 mpg car with an electric car.”

Despite the slow implementation of EVs, Washington currently imports 100% of its oil, has the third cheapest electricity of any state, and produces the second largest percentage of alternative energy of any state, which leads Marshall to believe that “Washington is one of the best states to own an electric vehicle.”