Portland’s Electric Vehicle Strategy: A Step In the Right Direction

On December 14, 2016, Portland City Council heard testimony and unanimously adopted the 2017 Electric Vehicle Strategy. The 2017 Electric Vehicle Strategy is an update to the 2010 Electric Vehicle Strategy and part of Portland’s Climate Action Plan to reduce local carbon emissions 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Developed and supported by Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Bureau of Transportation as well as Drive Oregon, Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, and TriMet among others, the 2017 Electric Vehicle Strategy will continue to prioritize walking, cycling, and mass transit as a means of reducing our city’s carbon emissions while at the same time working to support and accelerate the transition from gas and diesel to electric vehicles.

The primary goal of the strategy is to get as many gas and diesel vehicles off the road as possible, replacing them with electric and other zero-emissions vehicles. Other key goals include increasing affordability and community awareness of electric vehicles, supporting and expanding access to vehicles and charging stations, electrifying City fleets, and supporting electric vehicle innovation. In addition to cars, the Electric Vehicle Strategy seeks to electrify buses, bikes, scooters, and delivery trucks. These goals are admirable and to be applauded. They are a small step in the right direction, but a step nonetheless. It is not enough, however, to simply replace gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles.

Electricity does not appear out of thin air. Like all sources of power, electricity comes from somewhere. In this case it’s generated by companies like Portland General Electric and Pacific Power. And while both companies have taken laudable steps to increase their use of renewable resources, both still rely on coal and natural gas plants to meet our region’s electrical energy needs. In fact, Portland General Electric, though making plans to close its Boardman coal plant by 2020, is currently working to expand its Carty natural gas plant. With clean energy like wind and solar more affordable than ever, this expansion would most certainly be a step in the wrong direction.

Mia Reback of 350PDX testified to Portland City Council members that we need to continue encouraging our local officials and utility companies to “adopt a renewables-first agenda [so that] we’re not just switching from one fossil fuel type to another.” And she’s absolutely right. We need to continue talking about and pushing for renewable energy sources. We need to consider not only how to get gas and diesel-powered vehicles off the streets but how to charge our electric vehicles in a climate-friendly way. Zero-emission vehicles are not truly zero-emissions if they are being charged by electricity drawn from fossil fuel-powered plants. We should be proud of what our city and our region are accomplishing and of the ways we are acting together toward reducing Portland’s carbon emissions and improving air quality locally. But this is only the start. Our work here is far from over.