Washington is making solid headway toward reducing planet-warming emissions from state operations, but difficult questions remain, particularly when it comes to electrifying public vehicles.
That was the takeaway from a public meeting between Gov. Jay Inslee and agency leaders on Thursday, Nov. 18. Agencies shared their progress toward achieving net-zero emissions from their own operations by 2050, as is state-mandated.
“We are joyous in meeting targets,” Inslee said at Thursday’s meeting. “But one of the problems is that science has indicated our targets need to accelerate. We are always going to be reaching for the brass ring here.”
Inslee urged state agencies to ramp up their work, pointing to the devastating flooding in Whatcom County as a stark reminder of the urgency of climate change, which will bring more frequent extreme weather to the region. Greenhouse gas emissions — which come from burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas — drive climate change, according to NASA.
By 2020, Washington state agencies were required to reduce their emissions 15% below 2005 levels.
State agencies met this goal and then some: Altogether, their emissions were 16% below what it would have taken to fulfill 2020 goals. A good portion of this success can be attributed to the pandemic, which caused state activity to nearly halt for a period of time, said Laura Watson, director of the Department of Ecology. There was a steep drop in state agency emissions between 2019 and 2020.
But Watson posited that the 2020 goals could have been met even in the absence of the pandemic: Many agencies were on track to meeting or surpassing 2020 goals before the era of COVID-19, with 12 of the 21 agencies already meeting 2020 goals in 2019 and total statewide agency emissions in 2019 just 4% above 2020 goals.
Not every state agency was equally successful. Five of the 21 state agencies did not meet their individual 2020 emissions targets. Those that failed include Washington State University, the state Department of Transportation (excluding ferries), Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University, according to a visual in the Department of Ecology’s presentation on Thursday.
Ferries are the largest source of emissions from state agencies, gobbling more than 18 million gallons of diesel fuel annually. The state Department of Transportation is working to electrify its ferry fleet, which is good news not only for Washingtonians but for marine mammals, since modern ferries tend to be quieter and interfere less with the animals’ navigation.
Other large state emitters include public universities, the Department of Corrections, State Patrol and the Department of Social and Health Services.
Obstacles to vehicle electrification
One concern was brought up often over the course of the hour-long meeting: How can Washington agencies shift from fossil fuel-powered vehicles to electric ones?
It’s a question at the forefront of many state agencies’ concerns after Inslee announced an executive order earlier this month requiring all public vehicle fleets to be completely electrified by 2040. Electrification can lower emissions because it replaces direct fossil fuel use with electricity that can be generated from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydropower.
As of 2020, electric vehicles made up 3% of the state’s overall public fleet, according to an assessment by Washington State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Atlas Public Policy.
One point is clear: The state needs more charging infrastructure before it can achieve full electrification of the public fleet, said Kelly Lerner, chief of leased facilities and maintenance operations for the Department of Social and Health Services.
“It’s not a chicken or the egg situation,” Lerner told Inslee, who asked meeting attendees what specifically needs to happen to achieve fleet electrification. “We need the egg first.”
But it’s not as easy as plopping hundreds of charging stations at state facilities across Washington, Lerner said: Each station costs between $20,000 and $30,000.
“Funds have been scarce,” Lerner said. “And progress has been slow.”
Inslee expressed disbelief that a charging station could cost so much, referencing his own Chevy Bolt EV, which he plugs in at home. But Tara Smith, director of the Department of Enterprise Services, explained that much of the cost of the charging station comes from laying electric pathways underneath the pavement to where the charging station is.
Plus, the nearby electric infrastructure is often not powerful enough to support several EV chargers on site, requiring additional work from the local utility.
“Without spending this money and investing in charging infrastructure at state facilities, we won’t be able to fully make this transition,” said Hanna Waterstrat, director of the State Efficiency and Environmental Performance office at the Department of Commerce.
Inslee and the agency leaders kicked around the idea of agencies sharing a statewide network of EV charging stations, with some sort of system to schedule and coordinate who would charge where.
“Which unit do I use? Where can I be plugged in?” Inslee pondered aloud. “There’s got to be some software solution to figure those things out, it seems to me.”
The agency leaders highlighted several local projects that show how reducing emissions can go hand-in-hand with increasing human quality of life and saving money.
One such project is the first net-zero building owned by a state agency, which is a new annex for the Department of Ecology’s team in Spokane. The 6,200-square-foot structure is outfitted with 20,000 watts of solar power on the roof, which balances out the building’s energy use, said Brook Beeler, director of the Department of Ecology’s Eastern Office.
There’s also the building that houses the state’s Services for the Blind in Seattle. When the boiler and chiller broke at this facility, the state decided to replace the natural gas-powered equipment with electric equipment, as well as retrofit the building to be more efficient and insulated.
This decision not only reduced the building’s energy use by about 70% but cut energy costs in half, said Ron Major, resource conservation program manager at the Department of Enterprise Services.
“(This option) provided the best total cost of ownership over a 30-year life,” Major said. “It seemed to be the best choice.”
A new childcare facility in Olympia is the first net-zero building on the state’s Capitol Campus.
“These are exciting to me,” Inslee said of the projects. “It’s one step closer to saving our state from the horrors we are seeing.”