Is This the Last Gasp for Gas?

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Power supply for electric car charging.

Task Force Recommends Banning Gas Vehicles From City by 2035

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy

Could Bellingham be devoid of gasoline-powered passenger vehicles by 2035? How would that affect our mobility, our pocketbooks, our environment?

Bellingham’s City Council asked in 2018 what would be needed to eliminate carbon emissions from transportation by 2035. That question led to a task force that’s recommending a ban on internal combustion engine passenger vehicles within city limits within 15 years.

Unrealistic, say local car dealers.

The city asked, says the task force, and we answered.

“Everybody needs to assess these recommendations in the context charged by the council,” said Clare Fogelsong, Bellingham’s natural resources policy manager and a member of the Climate Action Task Force. “In that context of ‘Can we do it?’ it makes sense.”

“The only way to achieve carbon-free transportation is to eliminate internal combustion use in the city,” Fogelsong said. “The task force therefore included a limited application of that restriction, one that focuses on passenger vehicles.”

That’s quite a lofty goal, said Travis Graddon, manager at Roger Jobs Motors Inc. Porsche-Audi and Volkswagen in Bellingham. “As the reality comes closer, those aggressive ideals may become more moderate.”

The biggest challenge is cost, Graddon said. Battery-powered vehicles are expensive compared to their counterparts with internal combustion engines.

“Yes, we sell electric vehicles, and yes, they’re great, but the reality is not everyone can afford one,” Graddon said. “It’s not about profit, it’s about the cost of manufacturing electric vehicles.”

Julian Greening, general manager of Bellingham Ford Lincoln, agrees the task force’s recommendation is unrealistic, calling it “a pretty big leap.”

Greening pointed out the average car in Whatcom County is 12 years old.

“If you say, ‘Got to get rid of that and buy a new EV,’ that costs $30,000 to $40,000 at a minimum,”  he said.

For a two-car household, double it.

“How in the world is the average family in Whatcom County going to drop a hundred grand to satisfy these requirements?”

Greening said he does get the reasoning behind EVs.

“I understand the philosophy to protect the environment; it’s extremely important,” he said.

But what hasn’t been addressed is how additional electricity to charge all these vehicles will be generated. Electric power comes from coal, hydro, solar, wind, and nuclear power stations, Greening said, all of which come with their own environmental damage.

Graddon said that creating infrastructure for electric vehicles takes time, and ten to 15 years is not enough.

“It’s taken us a hundred years to get to electric vehicles,” Graddon said. “Now, suddenly, we’re going to ban internal combustion engines within 15 years? I’m not sure that’s a goal that benefits all consumers.”

Infrastructure improvements must be the top priority, Graddon said.

“Put that ahead of rules and regulations, and we’ll have greater success,” he said. “Infrastructure for bicycles, for new homes… We need to ascertain the power company has enough supply to accommodate that in the future.”

The environment isn’t the only factor to consider, Graddon said.

“This isn’t about loving or hating the environment,” he said. “This is about giving the people of Whatcom County mobility. These two things—mobility and the environment—have to work together. Moderation, tolerance and patience is what’s called for.”

Thanks to the government and to private-sector companies such as Tesla, the number of available charging stations in the area is increasing, to about two dozen now within a 10-mile radius of Bellingham, according to ChargeHub, a website and app that helps EV drivers find stations. The city has sited charging stations for its municipal vehicles and has supported additions to the Interstate 5 network.

“As demand grows, the market will respond with vehicles competitively priced,” Fogelsong said. “Impacts to dealers will be minimal; the auto manufacturing industry will adjust.”

Dealers are indeed spending on infrastructure and staff. In the past two years, Roger Jobs Motors has sent numerous employees to training sessions for Audi and Porsche EVs, and conducted on-site training in electric sales and repair. The dealership began investing in infrastructure in 2015 by adding two basic 220-volt charging stations.

“Last year, we invested tens of thousands in Level 3 chargers,” Graddon said. “We’ve looked at ‘super chargers.’ Initial estimates were over $250,000 for chargers, and another $200,000 for infrastructure modification.

Fogelsong agrees the path toward realization of a carbon-free Bellingham is littered with questions. Will consumers accept EVs? Will they like the available models? What’s their understanding of climate change? Will the cost of EVs move toward parity with gas-powered vehicles? How long will batteries last, and what about disposing of them?

Today in the United States, 15 models of EVs are available for consumer purchase, counting several models of Tesla as one (see accompanying story “What’s cool? What’s hot? Bellinghamsters like Teslas”). These electric vehicles range in price from $30,000 to $200,000 and up. Global research organization Ipsos reports that the primary barrier to EVs is price, because the cost of batteries is so high. An Ipsos study shows consumers are willing to pay 10 percent more for an EV over a similar gas version of the vehicle, and when that price exceeds 20 percent, consideration of EVs drops significantly.

Americans are much less likely to consider an EV than consumers elsewhere, mainly because of access to charging stations away from home, according to London-based OC&C Strategy Consultants. Just over half of Americans would even consider buying an EV, compared to 77 percent in France and 94 percent in China, according to OC&C.

OC&C found government incentives are key to getting consumers to buy electric. In California, which offers strong financial incentives, consumers buy nearly half of all EVs sold in the United States. Car ownership of any sort remains important to most Americans, with 84 percent saying their own car is essential—the highest percentage among the five industrialized countries studied.

The world’s fleet of EVs passed 5 million in 2018 and is forecast to be between 130 million and 250 million by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The IEA reiterates that government policy will continue to be the linchpin for EV adoption.

And what of Bellingham and its ability to eliminate gas-powered cars within the city? We’ll have to wait and find out, Graddon said.

“Wait and see how these proposals will be adopted by local government.”