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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Electric car age arrives: Higher gas prices pushing new sales but poorer people shut out

By Danny Westneat
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:01am

Our state’s sizzling gas prices, second highest in the nation, have been described this summer as annoying, painful, even scandalous, depending on who’s doing the talking.

But here’s another aspect to expensive gas that leaders seem shy to acknowledge: It’s working. Something is happening in the car market, suddenly, but also as part of a long-building strategy. Going electric — saying goodbye to oil — is surging.

August was a breakthrough month. The registration of cars that can be plugged into an outlet soared by 34 percent in Washington compared to the previous best month for EVs, which had been June. In King County, electric cars jumped even more in August, to the point that 25 percent of new car registrations there were either a battery vehicle or a plug-in hybrid.

It’s remarkable that a quarter of new cars coming onto the roads of the state’s biggest county are powered by electrons, not gas. It represents speedier-than-expected progress toward Gov. Jay Inslee’s goal of phasing out the sale of new gas cars entirely by 2035.

A year ago, 13 percent of King County’s new cars were electric. This is according to the state Department of Licensing, which tracks cars new to the state’s roads — either because they’re fresh off the lot, or are cars moved here from out of state.

Statewide, 17 percent of the 40,000 new vehicle registrations in August were electric, an all-time high. Three years ago it was 3 percent. That low figure made the goal of someday going fully electric seem “crazy” and “moonbatty,” as even a chief proponent of the idea admitted back then.

There are a lot of reasons for this EV surge. The cars are more available. Prices have dipped a bit. Carmakers are debuting more models in styles that people want, such as electric SUVs and trucks.

But certain to be contributing is a political lightning rod — Washington’s high gas prices. Pump prices have been further ratcheted up this year by the state’s new Climate Commitment Act. Charging for pollution was one of the main purposes of that 2021 act, the theory being that higher costs for dirty energy would push consumers into greener, cleaner alternatives.

“Although it’s politically very awkward to talk about higher fuel prices, from an environmental economics perspective, that’s kind of the point,” James Bushnell, an econ professor at the University of California-Davis, told The Seattle Times.

“You want firms and customers and everybody to sort of realize that, ‘Oh, yeah, hey, wait, the air isn’t free.’ And if using this energy is actually causing damage to the air or the climate, we want that reflected in everybody’s decisions on what kind of car to buy, and what kind of appliances to buy, and all of that.”

That appears to be working — even as its main architects, such as Inslee, won’t admit that higher fuel prices were ever a goal.

The places going full-on into EVs this summer are decidedly the bluer, wealthier, westside counties. All but one of Central and Eastern Washington’s 20 counties remained in the single digits for EV registration in August.

The barriers in Eastern Washington are higher. Driving distances are longer, so range is a bigger issue. And there’s limited charging infrastructure. The state’s Electric Vehicle Coordinating Council said at a meeting this month that Washington needs 3 million charging ports for proper coverage — and currently has 4,500.

The biggest issue is that household incomes are far lower in Eastern Washington than in Seattle and King, making costly EVs seem more like a luxury good.

It’s fantastic news that oil is finally on the run a bit. But Democrats also need to confront the inherent elitism of this project. The climate policy, as vital as it may be, is imposing a regressive cost on working-class people, who don’t have the means and haven’t been provided the infrastructure to go green. So they’re getting squeezed.

The first step might be the hardest in all of politics: admitting it.

“People who work can’t (bleeping) pay — we’re not buying Teslas,” U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez said last spring. From Skamania County, she’s one of the few state Democrats who senses the tension that’s building here. “People who get paychecks, and then look at them, aren’t buying Teslas.”

The news that oil might be staring at the beginning of its fall, after decades of crazy talk and hard work by environmentalists, is cause for celebration. But the age of electrics can’t be only for the well-off. If it is, it’s going to short circuit, possibly from voters pulling the plug.