Seattle City Light unveils strategy to handle expected surge in electric vehicles

Traffic snakes past downtown Seattle on Interstate 5. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Electric vehicles are poised to reach a tipping point in 2019 as battery prices dip to $150/kWh and Seattle is poised to usher in a surge of electric transportation across the region. Those conditions set the stage for a new Seattle City Light transportation electrification strategy released earlier this month and prepared by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank.

In the next decade, commuters will be riding on electric King County Metro buses, freight could be arriving at the Port of Seattle on electric trucks, tourists will be snapping selfies while aboard electric Washington State Ferries, and some 30 percent of cars on city streets could be electric. To that end, Seattle’s municipally owned utility finds itself on the “leading edge” of electric transportation adoption nationwide, commensurate only with peers like Austin, Texas, and several California utilities, says strategy co-author Lynn Daniel.

The strategy, a first of its kind for a municipal utility in the U.S., offers City Light a business case for investing now in the necessary infrastructure to prepare for the coming revolution in how Seattle powers its vehicles, perhaps much sooner than many other cities. Among the strategy’s recommendations, it encourages City Light to stay the course with its fast charger rollout, incentivize apartment and office buildings to install chargers, invest in charging infrastructure for ride-hailing services, consider transportation-specific electricity rates, make it easier for customers to install home chargers, and work closely with the port and transit agencies to prepare for heavy-duty electrification.

“Seattle is unique because so much of its power is from hydro and the low cost of electricity,” Daniel told GeekWire. “It helps opportunity costs meet parity with internal combustion now or sooner than in other geographies.”

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The confluence of factors favoring a rapid adoption of electric transportation is compelling. While flashy Tesla dealerships and electric car rollouts at major auto shows may occupy the popular imagination of a world beyond fossil fuels, those privately owned cars are just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Seattle has set a goal that 30 percent of all privately owned vehicles on city streets be electric by 2030, but that’s a goal that can only be met through incentives like rebates and charging stations. The market — and individual consumers — will decide whether or not to buy electric vehicles.

But cars aren’t the only vehicles on four wheels and public agencies with massive procurement power are committed to converting existing fleets to electric. King County Metro plans to have an all-electric fleet of 1,400 buses by 2040. The Washington State Ferry system is moving ahead with a January legislative mandate to convert the ferry fleet to electric vessels. The Port of Seattle’s Clean Truck program is ratcheting up standards for freight haul emissions — although that effort has met considerable pushback from drivers — and if electric trucks hit the market in the near future, they would offer considerable fuel savings for fleet operators.

King County Metro electric bus
Cleaner, quieter electric buses dramatically reduce reliance on fossil fuels and help cut carbon emissions, King County Executive Dow Constantine has said. (King County Metro Transit Photo)

The good news is that the Rocky Mountain Institute’s analysis found there is little to no risk that one too many Teslas will cause a citywide blackout.

“We are confident that we have the ability to meet the load,” said Emeka Anyanwu, Seattle City Light’s Energy Innovation and Resources officer. “It is not our impression that there is a large gap between what we project to be coming with new electric transportation impacts and our system’s ability to meet that goal from a supply and grid system perspective.”

The more likely concern is the micro-impact of a large amount of charging in a small area, like a hub for ride-hail cars or delivery vehicles.

“If someone puts in a depot for a few hundred vehicles and doesn’t consult with City Light, they could have a problem very locally,” Daniel said.

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Still, upgrades will be necessary, which Anyanwu said can be made through City Light’s existing capital program.

“How do we assess what we need to do to invest in our infrastructure based on what we project our demand and load needs to be? We have processes in place to forecast and react by deploying capital,” he said, but no price tag has yet been set on the strategy’s recommendations.

Daniel drew a distinction between publicly owned utilities like City Light and investor-owned utilities like the three main ones in California, the state at the forefront of electric transportation.

“Investor-owned utilities are able to do things quicker because they are more willing to roll cost and investment dollars into their rate base,” Daniel said. “That’s more challenging for a municipal utility, which is loath to raise rates. City Light is under pressure from the mayor and the city council to lower rates.”

Anyanwu did not provide details on any expected rate changes that pursuing the strategy’s recommendations might entail.

“We consider this a service like any other service we provide to our customer-owners,” he said.

Seattle has set a goal that 30 percent of all privately owned vehicles on city streets be electric by 2030. (Photo via City of Seattle)

For example, City Light intends to deliver 20 fast-charging stations across the city by the end of the year. One is already open in Beacon Hill and others will be spread throughout the city. Exact siting is done in consultation with neighborhoods and City Light has held public meetings, surveys, or other outreach in neighborhoods like West Seattle, Capitol Hill and the Central Area.

Daniel views City Light’s geographic consideration as part of an effort to calibrate how electric vehicle rollout is viewed by the public and elected officials. He argues that City Light must be cognizant that capital dollars spent on electric transportation, which may accrue benefits in the future and generate more revenue as customers switch from gas to charging stations, take away from potential other short-term investments that could immediately benefit lower-income ratepayers.

“The biggest barriers are on the political side because City Light is responsive to city council and the mayor,” Daniel said. “The perception is that electric vehicles are for wealthy people and equity is on the minds of political leaders to make sure benefits accrue to lower-income neighborhoods.”

Anyanwu, however, views electric transportation investments as consistent with the utility’s mission.

“This isn’t about how we recoup the investment in the infrastructure, it’s a focus on what drives the most value to our customer-owners,” he said.

With the strategy prepared, Anyanwu said the utility’s next step is to develop an action plan for delivering on the recommendations. That plan is expected to be ready in the second quarter of next year and presented to city council for approval.

“Our priority is really to develop a road map for how we’re going to execute,” he said.