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Can Seattle drivers be shamed into electric cars?

caption: Nesib CB Shamah drives his Model S Tesla on Monday, December 11, 2017, near his home in Seattle.
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1 of 5 Nesib CB Shamah drives his Model S Tesla on Monday, December 11, 2017, near his home in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Nesib CB Shamah hits the “gas,” and I’m slammed back into my seat by the brute acceleration. It’s a Tesla Model S, and it’s a glimpse of Seattle’s future — if the Emerald City is really serious about climate change.

Shamah’s an independent filmmaker who lives in North Ballard. He likes sports cars, but that’s not why he got one.

The Burning Question:What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

“The biggest thing was environmental. We got it because it’s an electric car,” Shamah says.

An environmental crusader might ask, “Why don’t you just take the bus or ride your bike?”

Shamah says he doesn’t really have much of a choice. “I have three kids, and we live in North Seattle, and they go to school in the Central District. So we're in the car a lot.”

Right now only around 1 percent of cars in Seattle are electric. And from the city’s perspective, that's not enough. The city has made a lot of promises, but still emits about the same amount of carbon dioxide as it did more than two decades ago.

To meet its current climate goals, Seattle needs to hit 30 percent electric cars by 2030, according to Brendan O'Donnell, who manages the electric vehicle program for Seattle City Light.

“When you look at the carbon pie where the emissions come from transportation is over 60 percent,” O'Donnell says.

To stay on track, the city needs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector 15 times faster than it's currently doing.

O'Donnell says that Seattle's environmental benefits from electric cars are bigger than other cities. That’s because our electricity comes mostly from hydro or wind and not from burning fossil fuels like coal or oil that contribute to climate change.

But currently there are still only a few thousand electric vehicles in the city, and many car buyers are reluctant to go electric. Some people wonder if they’re going to run out of juice or where they’ll charge up.

So City Light plans to install 20 new fast charging stations this year that will charge most electric vehicles in under an hour. A number of private companies, including Volkswagen, are going to be rolling out new fast charging stations as well.

The price of an electric car is also an obstacle to some buyers, but you don't have to spend $70,000 on a Tesla Model S. You could pick up a used Nissan Leaf, for instance, for around $200 a month.

There's also been innovation to deal with so-called range anxiety. The EPA estimates that the Chevy Bolt, with an asking price of around $30,000 with federal tax rebates, will take you around 238 miles on a single charge.

But how to persuade people who are still reluctant to switch to an electric vehicle? Here's where the messaging on climate change gets kind of tricky.

In Seattle, it's often implied that good people drive hybrids or electric cars (if they drive at all). And bad people drive gas guzzlers. But that moralistic framing could be an obstacle to change.

“I think we have to be careful about castigating people who purchase conventional material goods,” like pickup trucks, says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California.

Currid-Halkett says that's because of something people seldom talk about in Seattle: social class. And she says these days, class is not just about conspicuous consumption.

“To care about the environment is a luxury," she says. "It's very much an upper-middle-class value, because you have the luxury to think about things other than rent. If you're going to keep your job, if you can pay your bills and so forth.”

O'Donnell with Seattle City Light has an answer for that. He expects electric cars will be more widely used in lower income neighborhoods — not due to guilt or shame, but because electric cars are the best option, especially for the pros like cab or Uber drivers.

That's the case right now with hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius.

“It's not just Tesla," O'Donnell says. "Tesla's great because it's a wonderful vehicle. And people see them as an innovative technology.

But what the city really wants to encourage is electric vehicles across different kinds of uses.”

But the longer-term question remains: Will change come fast enough for Seattle to meet its climate goals?

In this series, KUOW examines The Burning Question: What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

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