Every year Mark Norman and his family drive from their home in Yakima to Idaho to visit his parents. It is a familiar journey with regular stops. They stop midway for fuel, food, and other amenities.
A few years ago, Norman would put gas in his car. Now he plugs it into an electric charger. In practice, Norman said, there is almost no difference.
In the next decade, this experience may become normal for Yakima residents. Earlier this year, Washington state set a goal of phasing out gas-powered cars by 2030.
Used gas-powered cars will be legal and used, but all new cars bought, sold or registered after 2030 will be electric. Although Norman and his family are in the fast lane for this statewide change — the family of five owns three electric vehicles — they’re still a minority in Yakima.
There were 553 electric vehicles in Yakima County in July 2022, according to state data, and only 1.3 percent of cars in Washington are electric. Wider deployment still faces several challenges, including the lack of infrastructure in central Washington and the upfront cost of electric vehicles.
Advocates have touted the long-term benefits of electric cars, including better air quality and savings on fuel and maintenance. They also reduce dependence on fossil fuels, helping to tackle climate change.
At what cost?
Electric vehicles are still expensive, especially for newer models with better batteries. This prevents many people from buying new electric vehicles. In their latest budget, Washington lawmakers set aside $25 million for electric vehicle incentives. Electric vehicle costs drop further when federal subsidies are included.
Colleen Anderson, co-founder of 350 Yakima Climate Action, a local climate change advocacy group, is confident the 2030 goal is achievable. Anderson also hopes that by 2030, cheaper models will be available and more used electric vehicles will be on the market.
“People can start thinking about electricity right now,” Anderson said. “By then (2030) there should be a lot of used vehicles on the market.”
David Cook, general sales manager at Steve Hahn Auto Group in Yakima, thinks automakers are also thinking about electrics. There are more electric vehicle models with a range that can accommodate most people’s use — up to 400 miles, Cook said.
Steve Hahn Auto Group sells electric models from KIA, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz. Cook said manufacturers are ramping up production of electric vehicles to meet demand, and demand is high.
“They’re disappearing faster than we can get them,” Cook said of electric cars. “In the next decade, we’ll probably see the tipping point where 50% are EVs or hybrids.”
Electric vehicle owners say that despite the upfront costs of more expensive vehicles or charger installations, electric vehicles help them save money. There is less maintenance and fuel is cheaper.
Andrew Whitment owns a Tesla and has installed solar panels at his residence in Yakima.
“I don’t care about gas prices. I don’t go to the gas station, Whitmont said. “I will never buy a gas car again.”
Norman’s household also has solar panels. Their fuel and energy costs are under $100 per year.
The upfront costs are not insignificant. They can be a barrier to entry for many low-income residents and communities when it comes to clean energy vehicles. In a draft plan to roll out electric vehicles statewide, officials noted the need for incentives and support for electric vehicles in disadvantaged communities.
Charging and chargers
The biggest challenge facing Washington is the lack of infrastructure to support what could be thousands more electric vehicles in 2030.
Electric vehicles can be charged using three categories of chargers — Level 1, Level 2 and DC fast charging. Level 1 chargers are often found in homes and charge an electric vehicle in about 40-50 hours. Level 2 chargers are more common in homes, workplaces and public places and charge vehicles in 4-10 hours.
Level 2 charging stations are common enough, with at least a dozen in Yakima in public places, according to plugshare.com. Although they often need to be installed, they can charge most electric vehicles overnight and are practical for short-distance journeys.
That should serve most residents of Yakima County, where 95.8 percent of workers over the age of 16 work within the county and the average commute time is about 19 minutes, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Sarah Cate and Russell Meyer of Yakima, who have owned a Nissan Leaf for three years, said the first time they needed repairs was a broken window. They can travel to Ellensburg or the Tri-Cities from Yakima without reloading. Their vehicle has a range of approximately 200 miles and they charge it at home or using local chargers.
“It’s basically cost-effective to put your own gas pump in your home,” Meyer said of the chargers.
However, there is a shortage of DC fast chargers that can charge vehicles in 20 minutes to an hour. These chargers are comparable to charging at a gas station and are necessary for trips beyond the range of the car.
Critics of the 2030 goal, such as Washington state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, pointed to the inconvenience of longer trips — finding and using chargers takes time. Drivers aren’t completely alone – websites like PlugShare show where charging stations are and what chargers are available. But advocates and owners of electric vehicles also acknowledge the difficulties.
“That’s one of their flaws. If you want to drive further, you need more time,” Kate said. “We need more chargers.”
There are currently three DC fast charging stations in the Yakima Valley that are publicly accessible with a total of 12 charging plugs. Add Prosser and the number is 14. Between Yakima and Issaquah, a 126-mile trip on Interstates 82 and 90, there are only six publicly accessible DC fast-charging stations.
To that end, the Washington Legislature created the Interagency Electric Vehicle Coordinating Council (IEVCC), which includes the state departments of transportation and commerce. The IEVCC works with the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula (NEVI) program to build electric infrastructure.
As part of that effort, several highways in the state have been named Alternative Fuel Corridors (AFCs), including I-90 and I-82, according to a draft plan released Aug. 1. These corridors will be prioritized in the development of electric vehicle infrastructure, although few projects have been planned in the Yakima Valley so far.
The way forward
The road to 2030 may be long. King, who was critical of such a short turnaround, wants more options explored. He highlighted the easy charging of hydrogen fuel cell or hybrid cars and hopes to see more support for these alternatives. King is also concerned about battery disposal and the environmental impact of the chemicals and metals that batteries contain.
The general goal for electric cars also only applies to light-duty vehicles, those that weigh less than 10,000 pounds. Larger vehicles, including trucks, vans and buses, may not be completely zero-emission by 2050.
Despite the challenges, many are optimistic. Norman notes that electric vehicle technology has come a long way and hopes it will continue to advance.
“I tell myself every day that today, right now, is going to be the worst time to own an electric vehicle,” Norman said. “It’s only going to get better.”