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Getting There: The electric-vehicle buzz is real

An electric plug charges a  Smart car. The number of plug-in electric vehicles registered in Washington tripled between 2013 and 2016. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
An electric plug charges a Smart car. The number of plug-in electric vehicles registered in Washington tripled between 2013 and 2016. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

The combustion of fuel and the torque of a powerful engine.

The fumes of exhaust, the toll of pollution and the volatile price of a gallon of gas.

Driving can stir many emotions, but perhaps none as visceral as the one raised by the potent, roaring contraption below the hood, or the anger when gas reaches toward $4 a gallon.

Soon, these feelings may be vestiges of a simpler time, the pay-as-you-go, tailpipe approach to personal transportation that has ruled our roads since the car’s invention.

Good.

More than 40 percent of the state’s carbon emissions come from our cars and trucks, thanks to the 60 billion miles we drove in 2016, the most recent data available to the public. In an allegedly environmentally friendly state with a supposedly green-minded governor, you’d think the situation would be different.

But there’s reason to believe change is coming.

In 2013, about 8,000 plug-in electric vehicles were registered with the state of Washington. In 2016, that number jumped to more than 24,000.

“That transportation sector is the last major sector to electrify,” said Rendall Farley, manager of electric transportation at Avista. “But I’m really encouraged, not only from our own learning locally, but globally. There are potentially huge benefits for society, from an environmental perspective as well as an economic perspective.”

Farley would know. He’s leading the local energy utility’s program to bring electric vehicle infrastructure to the region.

In 2016, Avista asked regulators to approve a two-year pilot program to install 265 electric vehicle charging stations in homes, workplaces and public locations around Eastern Washington. Avista’s about halfway to the goal line.

So far, the utility has installed about 120 residential chargers, 50 multiport chargers in workplaces and 25 port locations for the public at large. Additionally, the company has built four fast-charging, DC-power-based ports and will install three more this year.

“So far, they’re mostly concentrated around Spokane, but we’re hoping to spread that regionally,” Farley said, noting that the pilot program has been extended through June 2019.

It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario, but Farley said he anticipates electric vehicle use to grow greatly in coming years.

“We have maybe 600 EV drivers that are Avista customers,” he said. “We’re seeing 30 percent year-over-year growth. And we see those numbers increasing over the next few years, perhaps exponentially.”

Farley credits that expected growth to the “massive amount of investment happening now,” not just from companies like Avista but also through car companies manufacturing electric vehicles in greater numbers.

Last week, the Spokane City Council voted to waive permit fees related to electric vehicle charging stations, to encourage their use.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who introduced the ordinance, estimated the fees were between $75 and $100.

“I don’t know if it’ll be enough or not, but is the fee we have and every little bit helps,” he said. “They’re all just small steps. But as someone at the meeting said, ‘It’s going to take a thousand steps to get there, and each one matters.’ ”

The ordinance also waived fees for solar energy projects, and Stuckart said they fed into the city’s Sustainability Action Plan adopted in 2009. He said the city’s use of recycled paper and a rule requiring that the city’s fleet of vehicles only be replaced by vehicles with better gas mileage were in the same vein.

But he suggested the rules were done in part to “offset” what’s being done – or not being done, as the case may be – in Washington, D.C.

“You can incentivize it at the local level, like we are with the permit fees,” he said. “This policy could not be done at the state or federal level. They could do other incentives, but not this.”

Farley, with Avista, said the electric vehicle revolution is coming, and the region should be ready.

“You can’t wait till you’re at that point. You have to set it up,” he said. “When it comes to electrification of transportation, our region is a little bit behind the curve. But when it comes to what the utility is doing, we’re taking a very proactive but measured approach. We’re still learning and setting the stage for the future.”