Volkswagen’s past deception might help foster an electric transformation of transportation in Washington state, especially in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
More than two years ago, the German automaker — after years of promoting its “Clean Diesel” engine technology as an alternative to electric and hybrid vehicles — was found to have used deceptive software in its vehicles that reduced diesel air contaminants during emissions tests. But during normal operation, the VW vehicles were spewing up to 40 times the allowed levels of nitrogen oxides and other contaminants, including fine particulates, carbon dioxide and black carbon.
Those pollutants are known to trigger asthma and other respiratory disease as well as add to the load of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, 43 percent of which in Washington state are generated by our cars, trucks and other modes of transportation.
Volkswagen’s $14.7 billion settlement with the federal government will now help states clear the air. Based on 24,000 affected VW diesels sold in the state, Washington will receive $112.7 million of the $2.7 billion in that settlement that is earmarked for environmental mitigation. The state Department of Ecology was given the task of developing a plan for how that money would be used, and now has released a draft of its plan for public comment.
“By cheating emissions tests, Volkswagen exposed Washingtonians to more pollution and threatened their health,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a release. “Using this settlement to right those wrongs and protect our communities in the future is the best investment we can make.”
The Department of Ecology’s plan will encourage broader use of zero-emission and near-zero-emission vehicles. About 15 percent of the fund will be used to purchase and install electric vehicle charging stations, particularly along the state’s portion of the West Coast Electric Highway, which has placed charging stations along I-5 from Blaine to Vancouver, as well as portions of U.S. 2 and I-90.
An estimated 300 additional charging stations could be installed throughout the state. Increasing the availability of charging stations will help make the purchase of an electric vehicle an easier decision for the general public.
But the greater portion of the fund can be used to spark electrification of fleets of trucks, buses, ferries and other vehicles, the great majority of them running on diesel.
Bruce Speight, executive director for Environment Washington, in a news release, recommends using those funds to purchase about 119 electric buses. “This would eliminate 201,110 tons of carbon dioxide and 18,890 kilos of diesel particulate matter from the air over their life cycle. “And if that’s not enough,” said Speight, “because of the decreased maintenance and fuel costs of electric buses, this would save transit authorities across the state about $20 million over 12 years of use.”
Electric buses and hybrids are already on the market and are expected to make up an increasing share of public transit and school fleets in the next five years and could make up a fifth of all buses by 2021.
Everett Transit received a $3.4 million federal grant in 2016 for the purchase of its first electric buses, and is scheduled to roll out four electric buses next year to replace four older diesels. Community Transit operates hybrid buses on its Swift rapid transit route.
But the Department of Ecology plan also recommends using the funds to help replace diesel engines in a range of vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks hauling freight, airport and marine port equipment and even ferries, tugboats and locomotives.
Tesla has already unveiled a semitractor-trailer, which it will begin production of in 2019, that has a range of 500 miles and can haul an 80,000-pound load.
Electric ferries could be a perfect fit on Puget Sound. Along with reducing air pollution, the electric ferries are quieter, reducing noise that is known to interfere with orca whales and other marine mammals. With electric ferries already in use in Norway, an electric ferry is now being designed to replace the 21-vehicle Skagit County-operated ferry that runs between downtown Anacortes and Guemes Island.
It’s not hard to imagine electric ferries crossing between Mukilteo and Clinton or Edmonds and Kingston.
Washington State Ferries, Crosscut reports, is studying the idea of converting some of its fleet of 22 ferries to electric or hybrid-electric power. It’s a relatively simple retrofit; the ferries’ screws already are driven by electric motors, meaning batteries could be installed to augment or replace the diesel engines.
Residents of Snohomish County and those who commute to King County can expect to see much of these investments. Because more than half of VW’s diesels involved in the settlement were registered in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, including a little more than 9 percent in Snohomish County, those counties are expected to see a proportionate share of that investment.
In selling diesel-powered vehicles that were rigged to game state and federal clean air regulations — and then marketing those vehicles as a “clean” cousin to electrics and hybrids — Volkswagen displayed duplicity and cynicism that a $14.7 billion settlement only begins to satisfy.
What Washington state does with its share of the settlement can help reverse the damage done and set it on a road where it’s easier for us all to breathe.
Comment on the plan
The Department of Ecology is taking public comment on its draft proposal for use of the VW settlement. The draft plan is available at tinyurl.com/WaDOEvwplan. Comment online at tinyurl.com/CommentWaDOEvw.