PORTLAND — Since 1910, Seattle City Light has provided electricity to power buildings and light the streets. In the public utility’s second century, there is a new ambition — to provide fuel for fleets of cars, buses and trucks now dependent on gasoline and diesel.
Next year, utility officials will take a step in that direction. They will launch a pilot program to install charging stations for electric cars in several hundred homes and also foot the bill for 20 fast-charging stations around the city where motorists can charge their vehicles in as little as 30 minutes.
The utility’s move comes as auto manufacturers are expanding their lines of electric cars and the distances those cars can go between charges. In Seattle, electric car batteries — even at a time of lower crude prices — provide power at less than a third the cost of gasoline, and utility officials expect there will be 12,000 electric vehicles in the city by 2020, triple the current number.
“We think we have a tremendous resource that can be leveraged for transportation,” said Brendan O’Donnell, energy planning supervisor for the utility. “We think there is a huge opportunity.”
O’Donnell spoke about Seattle City Light’s plans last week in Portland at EV Roadmap, a two-day conference that drew nearly 400 regional and national leaders in the electric-car industry. They test drove new models, shared stories of progress and challenges, and debated the future.
Many in the industry believe that electric cars — fed by a grid with more clean energy — will play a big role in helping the U.S. make steep cuts in fossil-fuel use that are needed to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. That accord — signed by the U.S. and more than 170 other nations — seeks to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
The vast majority of Seattle City Light’s electricity — nearly 90 percent in 2014 — comes from carbon-free hydropower.
To encourage sales of less-polluting electric cars, the federal government offers up to $7,500 in tax credit for each purchase. And in Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee has embraced electric vehicles as part of his plan to reduce greenhouse gases, the first $32,000 of cost is exempt from the state sales tax.
But as of June, plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars still represent only about 1 percent of U.S. automotive sales and leases. And analysts aren’t predicting a near-term tipping point where the benefits of a cleaner technology, cheaper fuel and some snazzy performance turn the vehicles into mass-market favorites.
John Gartner of Navigant Research, a research and consulting firm that focuses on emerging technologies, forecasts that even by 2025, annual U.S. sales of electric cars will remain a modest share of sales in an automotive industry dominated by petroleum fuels.
“There are definitely upper bounds, and this may be a little bit of a damper to some of the true believers in the room,” Gartner said at the conference. “It’s going to be in the 15 percent (annual sales) range, at best, barring some really unforeseen technology breakthrough.”
For consumers contemplating the switch to electric cars, range anxiety continues to be a major barrier. If they take a road trip, where will they find a place to plug in, how long will the recharge take and will the charger offer reliable service?
Mobile phone apps — as well as those incorporated into electric vehicles — can help ease those concerns by offering drivers maps that pinpoint charging stations. On a test drive of an all-electric Volkswagen Golf through downtown Portland, some 200 potential plug-in sites showed up within a 15-mile radius of the car.
The electric-vehicle industry, along with utilities such as Seattle City Light, are trying to speed up recharge times by expanding investments in a network of stations that can quickly replenish a battery.
For those who don’t want to worry about recharging on the road, there are more plug-in offerings, such as the Chevy Volt, that operate on electricity and then switch over to gasoline for longer distances. The latest-model Volt goes more than 50 miles on a charge.
Meanwhile, the options for longer range all-electric vehicles are increasing.
Most of the midpriced all-electric vehicles top out at about 100 miles per battery charge.
Tesla sometime in 2017 is expected to start selling a new model priced at about $35,000 that will get 200 miles or more to a charge. In March of this year, hundreds of people lined up at company stores in Seattle and Bellevue to place $1,000 down payments on those vehicles.
But Chevy is expected to be first to the market with a midpriced, 200-mile range vehicle. The Bolt will go into production by the end of the year and be at auto dealerships within the first six months of 2017. It will sell for around $37,500 and feature new battery technology and an aerodynamic design, said Shad Balch, a General Motors product manager who showed off the vehicle last week in Portland.
Balch said the Bolt reflects a push by the company chief executive, Mary Barra, to mainstream electric cars.
“Our CEO is hot on EVs,” Balch said. “She made a commitment to bring electrification to more of the GM vehicles, and the Bolt is an example of that.”
A Seattle city official, Chris Bast, says the Bolt would make a good addition to the municipal fleet of 89 electric and plug-in vehicles, which represents just under 20 percent of the city’s passenger sedans. In the years ahead, that percentage is expected to escalate substantially, and the city will install some 400 charging outlets for the fleet.
This will be part of a broader electrification of the transportation fleet that eventually would include more trucks and other types of vehicles. City officials also want to see more battery-powered electric buses taking over Metro routes where overhead wires for electric trolley buses are not available.
The goal of this Drive Clean Seattle plan is to reduce polluting emissions. And electrification, along with other steps such as bike paths and improved mass transit, are viewed as a means to that end, said Bast, who serves as the city’s climate policy adviser.
But for utilities, such as Seattle City Light, the electric vehicles also could represent a significant new source of revenue.
An analysis by the Northwest Power Planning Council looked at what would happen in 2035 if electric vehicles represented 25 percent of the total cars and trucks on the road in the four-state region.
The study found that electric vehicles would generate about $300 million in electricity sales for utilities, and account for 4 to 5 percent of the region’s total power demand, according to Massoud Jourabchi, a power council staffer.
That demand would be unevenly spread through the region, with the urban hubs of Portland and Seattle expected to draw the biggest loads to charge electrical cars.
O’Donnell, Seattle City Light’s energy planner, says the utility would be to able to meet this demand.
During the past five years, despite the city’s construction boom, the overall load demand for Seattle City Light has taken a modest dip due to conservation and other efforts.
“We think this is a real success story,” O’Donnell said.