Within two decades, many Northwest residents could be driving electric vehicles, transforming the way the region uses energy.
Modeling by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council suggests that 25 percent of passenger vehicles in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana could be electric by 2035. The prospect has significant implications for Avista Corp. and other utilities, which are eager to understand how electric cars will affect demand for electricity.
Spokane-based Avista will begin installing 272 charging connections in Eastern Washington homes, workplaces and public areas this month to gather information on electric cars and recharging.
Just a smattering of Avista’s Washington customers currently own electric vehicles or plug-in electric-gas hybrids. Rendall Farley, who is in charge of Avista’s Electrification and Transportation Initiatives, said the number is probably between 350 and 400. But ownership is expected to grow rapidly as prices come down, selection increases and public policies encourage ownership of the less-polluting vehicles.
“It’s becoming more and more recognized that if we want to reduce emissions, we have to electrify transportation,” Farley said. “Driving electric means investing in an energy future that’s less expensive and much cleaner for the environment.”
In Washington, about 45 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Driving an electric vehicle that plugs into Avista’s grid would lower emissions by about 80 percent over a gas-fueled vehicle, Farley said.
More than half of Avista’s electric production comes from hydropower dams and wind turbines. Natural-gas fired turbines, which produce about 35 percent of Avista’s electricity, also emit less carbon than burning gasoline.
The Washington State Electric Vehicle Action Plan, adopted last year by the state Transportation Department, calls for increasing the number of electric vehicles in Washington from the current 16,500 to 50,000 within four years. Adding more plug-in vehicles to government fleets and building public charging stations to make fueling easier for drivers are part of the plan.
Both the utilities and the public stand to benefit from the switch, said Massoud Jourabchi , the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s manager of economic analysis.
For utilities, electric vehicles represent a new source of revenue, Jourabchi said. Electric vehicle adoption could grow Northwest utilities’ electric revenue by $450 million over the next two decades. Most of the charging is expected to occur at night, when demand for electricity is low.
“People basically go home and plug it in and have their vehicle ready for the next day,” Jourabchi said.
Northwest drivers also would benefit from lower fuel costs, he said. The four-state region spends about $14.5 billion dollars annually on gasoline, and fuel prices for electric vehicles are comparable to buying gas for less than $1 per gallon, Jourabchi said.
Avista doesn’t expect electric vehicle recharging to become a significant revenue source for another five to 10 years, Farley said. But the utility wants to start collecting information about electric vehicles, including whether customers would be willing to forgo charging during times of peak electrical use, said Mary Tyrie, an Avista spokeswoman.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission earlier this year approved Avista’s plan to spend $3 million on the charging station program. The utility expects to recover the cost of the two-year pilot through future electric rates.
Avista will install 120 charging stations in homes over a two-year period. Another 80 charging systems with multiple plug-in ports will be installed in workplaces and public areas.
Electric-vehicle owners can apply to have a charging station installed at their residence at no cost. The equipment and installation is valued at about $1,375 per customer, and it speeds up the rate of recharge. Plugging an electric vehicle into a 110-volt outlet provides about 5 miles of driving distance per hour of charging, compared to about 25 miles per hour of charging with an AC Level 2 charging system.
The ideal candidate for the program is an electric car owner whose employer also is willing to have a workplace charger installed.
“We know that 80 percent of charging occurs at home,” Farley said. “Another 15 percent occurs at work, where people are parked for a long time. The U.S. Department of Energy has found that workplace chargers can be a tremendous incentive and catalyst to driving electric.”
The utility also will install seven DC fast chargers in public areas, which are designed to reduce “range anxiety” in drivers of electric vehicles and encourage them to take longer trips.
The first installations of fast chargers will be in Rosalia, Spokane and Pullman, with later sites determined as Avista learns more about drivers’ traveling patterns. Drivers will pay by the minute for the charge, with an hourlong charge at one of the sites providing about 200 miles of driving.
Besides gathering information for the utility, the pilot could help speed up awareness and acceptance of electric vehicles, Farley said.
In Washington, most electric vehicle ownership is clustered in the Puget Sound area and along the Interstate 5 corridor, Jourabchi said. Ownership rates drop off in rural areas, where commutes tend to be longer.
Farley recently bought a used Nissan Leaf to give himself personal experience with driving electric. The Leaf has become his commuter car, replacing the SUV he once used for the 15-mile round trip from his South Hill home to Avista’s headquarters on Mission Avenue.
Farley has driven the Leaf to Fort Spokane to test the car’s performance on longer drives. But for most longer trips, he still relies on the SUV.
He can see other Spokane families eventually adding an electric vehicle for town trips, while keeping their gas vehicles for the occasional longer drives.
“Most people don’t drive more than 30 miles per day,” Farley said.