Brian Henderson of Renton plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan in June of 2017. Henderson and a group of fellow electric car drivers made the trip from Everett’s City Hall to Spokane’s City Hall in an effort to raise awareness about convenient charging locations along U.S. 2. (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Brian Henderson of Renton plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan in June of 2017. Henderson and a group of fellow electric car drivers made the trip from Everett’s City Hall to Spokane’s City Hall in an effort to raise awareness about convenient charging locations along U.S. 2. (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Editorial: County jumpstarts its switch to electric vehicles

The budget calls for purchase of EVs for the county’s fleet; serving as an example for others.

By The Herald Editorial Board

While many will have great hopes but little certainty that we will witness meaningful accomplishments out of the United Nations’ 26th Conference on Parties summit on climate change, which wrapped up Saturday in Glasgow, Scotland, it might help to recognize the progress that does happen around us, often incremental, but still significant.

Some of it is there in a document as rote as Snohomish County’s $1.26 billion budget for 2022, which the county council adopted last week.

Among the spending outlined in the budget, the council and County Executive Dave Somers agreed to spend about $2.2 million to jump-start the county’s efforts to transition from gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles in the county’s fleet to electric vehicles. The county adopted a Green Fleet Implementation Plan with the 2021 budget, but without a significant capital investment then to begin making that transition.

The county’s fleet of 1,465 vehicles, including more than 194 Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicles, currently includes only a handful of plug-in EVs.

Recognizing that there are county vehicles — such as heavy- and medium-duty trucks — for which there are not yet feasible electric alternatives, there still are scores of vehicles that provide an opportunity for EVs, taking advantage of a local government’s needs for vehicles that are driven only a limited number of miles in a day and have a convenient location for plugging in to charging equipment when not in use.

County Council member Nate Nehring had been looking for opportunities to fund the purchase of more EVs to replace current vehicles, and had researched whether federal covid-19 relief funds the county has received might be used for that purpose; they couldn’t. But Nehring remembered another possible source of funding that was easier for the county to tap, a recent sale of 144 acres of surplus county property off Cathcart Way near Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, which netted more than $40 million.

Nehring — knowing that fellow council member Jared Mead was as interested in the effort as he — phoned Mead with the idea.

“That was an awesome phone call to get,” Mead said, during a joint interview with the editorial board last week.

“Nate was trying to address how we could accelerate that transition affordably and — as a government — lead by example,” he said.

The $2.2 million, said the pair, who have worked on bipartisan proposals before, will help fund an initial purchase of about 20 electric vehicles out of a total of 96 vehicles that have been identified as good candidates for replacement by EVs. The money also will fund installation of charging stations at various county locations. After the first 20 vehicles, more will follow as existing vehicles near the end of their expected service life. Future purchases will be funded through a rate increase for the county’s internal services fund.

Sheriff’s department patrol vehicles aren’t included in the electrification plan, although the department has launched its own pilot study with the purchase of a Tesla Model Y SUV that is expected to begin its patrol use by the end of the year.

Nehring and Mead are expecting the transition to generate significant savings for the county in reduced costs for fuel and for vehicle maintenance, while helping the county meet its goals for reducing its carbon footprint. That Snohomish County would be one of the leaders in the state in terms of such an effort, was an added bonus, both said.

The county’s green fleet plans aren’t the only environmental win in next year’s budget, which makes significant investments for a range of environmental issues, totaling some $36 million in investments, Somers noted in a separate interview.

In addition to the $2.2 million for the county’s fleet electrification plans, those investments include $20 million for land acquisition for conservation and protection of sensitive areas; $7 million for work to replace culverts that block salmon passage and to improve salmon habitat; another $4.5 million for a separate culvert replacement and estuary restoration work at Meadowdale Beach; and $4.5 million for the county’s proposed Food and Farming Center at McCollum Park.

“With the county growing as rapidly as it is, we really need to up our efforts regarding environmental protection,” Somers said. “Keeping the natural environment healthy and fixing some of the problems and protecting some of it outright is just really important for our future to have some balance between the growth we’re going to have and the natural environment and the value it has for us.”

The county’s green fleet investments, however, are significant because of the glacial pace of progress shown in electrifying the fleets owned and maintained by state and local governments in Washington.

A 2018 report by Coltura — a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for the transition from fossil fuels to electric and cleaner alternatives — found that less than 1 percent of some 30,000 vehicles maintained by state agencies and counties, cities and other local governments, were electric vehicles.

Even as the Legislature had set a goal in 2007 to make the transition to EVs “to the extent practicable” by 2018, the result seen in fleets for state agencies and local governments was underwhelming. The report surveyed five state agencies and — of 7,191 vehicles — found only 152 electrics. Results were similar for counties, cities and school districts in the state.

That could change, at least at the state level. One of the promises to emerge from the COP26 summit in Glasgow was an executive order announced by Gov. Jay Inslee that state government agencies — including the State Patrol and the departments of Transportation, Corrections and Social and Health Services, would begin making the transition, with the goal of all-electric state agency fleets by 2035.

Nearly 15 years have now passed since state lawmakers set a goal — squishy as it was — for electrification of state and local government vehicle fleets, and in that 15 years, the expectations for “to the extent practicable” have changed. Electric vehicles have seen impressive advancements in battery technology, in range and in affordability during those 15 years.

The example now set by the state and Snohomish County should further signal the possibilities, for other local governments and for the public.

Mead and Nehring are fathers of young children with concerns for their future, which provided additional incentive to speed progress on electrification of the county’s fleet vehicles.

“This is one of those things we’re able to do for future generations,” Nehring said. “For our kids, and our kids’ kids.”

Correction: The total number of vehicles in the county fleet has been corrected to reflect a total of 1,465, which includes 334 for various county administrative departments, 194 police cruisers and 248 detective and administrative vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department, and 689 heavy-duty vehicles for the Public Works department.

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