Best in Class: Back to school on an electric bus

          Photo credit: Fastcompany.net

As kids across the country hop on buses and head back to school, what else are they taking in besides an education? The answer may be pollutants.

School buses, typically powered by diesel engines, can emit dangerous levels of pollutants. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of these emissions. A 2001 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that children in the back of diesel-powered school buses could be exposed to toxic pollutants at four times the rate of people in the cars behind those buses, and that riding in school buses powered by diesel could pose 46 times the rate of “significant” risk for cancer. A more recent 2015 study for the California Air Resources Board found that air pollution in diesel-powered school buses continues to put children in danger. The negative effects range from heightened absenteeism to persistent heart and lung conditions, such as emphysema and asthma.

Efforts to improve the tailpipe emissions of school buses could have wide-reaching effects. More than half of all U.S. students, or greater than 25 million children, ride in school buses. A 2015 study by the University of Michigan found that reductions in diesel tailpipe emissions had widely positive effects on children, from improved lung functions to reduced absenteeism.

One straightforward method of eradicating tailpipe emissions would be for school districts to adopt all-electric buses.

All-electric buses that plug in to the electric grid virtually eliminate children’s exposure on school bus trips to dangerous pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. The buses also safeguard children’s futures by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. A switch to electric buses provides a double win of protecting our kids’ health and their environment.

Electric school buses have recently become available in the North American market. Only a few companies manufacture purpose-built electric school buses, but some school districts in the United States and Canada have committed to deploying them. Quebec company Lion manufactures electric school buses, and U.S. bus maker Blue Bird plans to produce electric school buses by the end of 2018 that will be able to put power back onto the grid or into a building. The capacity to operate buses with two-way power would improve the financial outlook of purchasing electric buses, which are more expensive to purchase but are less expensive to fuel and operate.

U.S. interest in electric buses is growing, although mostly for use in public transit systems (Los Angeles, for example, plans to switch its entire transit bus system to electricity by 2030). Recently, city planners have expressed the need to expand the benefits of zero-emission electric buses, such as better air quality and helping develop neighborhoods, to low-income residents and vulnerable populations. Falling battery prices and the introduction of new electric bus manufacturers to the school bus market will help extend these trends to school districts. Children, among the most vulnerable of groups, may soon be enjoying the quiet, pollution-free benefits of electric transportation.

Nations, companies driving toward cleaner cars

The British government’s recently announced plan to ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 shows the growing momentum globally toward a cleaner transportation system.

The ban is central to the British climate goal of zero emissions from the transportation sector by 2050. At the moment, the ban does not appear to be wishful thinking—a minister from the Department for Transport confirmed that Theresa May’s new government intends to honor its climate goals under the Paris Climate Agreement.

The United Kingdom joins other developed and developing nations that are taking action toward cleaner cars:

  • France made a similar announcement last week, identifying climate goals and improvements in air quality as reasons to ban gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles by 2040.
  • Both the Dutch and the Norwegian governments have discussed plans to implement similar bans by 2025, though legislators have not yet acted.
  • Parts of the German government have been advocating for a gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle prohibition. The Merkel administration has a goal of putting one million electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads by 2020 (though the target will likely not be met).
  • India’s government plans to switch entirely to electrified vehicles by 2030.
  • In 2018, the Chinese government is expected to implement a program based on California’s ZEV program that would require at least 8 percent of an automaker’s total auto sales in China be EVs.

Automakers are also steering toward clean transportation. In July, Volvo became the first major automaker to announce a switch entirely from traditionally fueled vehicles. It will only produce cars that include an electric motor (either EVs or hybrids) beginning in 2019.

Other companies are continuing to innovate in the EV space:

Though not an automaker, Royal Dutch Shell is planning to partially pivot to hydrogen and biofuel production in response to anticipated reductions in oil demand within the next two decades. CEO Ben Van Beurden said he plans to buy an EV next year, citing concerns for the environment.

In the United States, cities and states are helping lead the transformation to clean transportation.

A consortium of dozens of cities is looking into buying more than 100,000 EVs of all types. Seattle’s transit agency plans to have the largest fleet of zero-emission buses.

States from Oregon to Texas to Connecticut offer incentives for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles. And 10 states follow California’s ZEV program that requires a growing number of zero-emission vehicles as a percentage of total auto sales.

U.S. electric utilities are also innovating, with 44 companies offering some incentive for customers to adopt EVs.

Making a U-turn in the drive toward clean innovation, at least for now, is the U.S. federal government. Federal greenhouse gas emissions targets through 2025 for vehicles, which were finalized under the Obama Administration, have been reopened for review through 2018 despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that the standards are affordable and achievable. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently suggested that federal fuel economy standards through 2025 could be frozen at 2021 levels, pausing required improvements in the national fleet’s fuel economy.

More and more estimates show that global EV demand will rise considerably in the coming decades. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Energy Information Administration both increased their most recent adoption outlooks, with BNEF predicting that one third of new vehicles worldwide will be electrified by 2040. OPEC’s 2017 prediction for global EV sales by 2020 increased 500 percent over the 2016 prediction.

Nations, states, cities, and companies are leading the way toward a clean transportation future because it makes environmental and economic sense. The U.S. government should be doing all it can to foster this innovation, not curtail it.

 

Action on VW settlement heating up as summer approaches

Summer is around the corner, bringing barbeques, warm weather, and road trips. U.S. residents may benefit from Volkswagen (VW) funding for those last two items (and Nissan bravely experimented with the barbeque): reducing air pollutants that cause harmful health effects in warm weather through a Mitigation Trust, and extending electric vehicles’ (EVs) driving range through a series of charging infrastructure investments. Both programs are set to take effect shortly, and cities and businesses may benefit from early action.

As a quick reminder, VW is putting $4.7 billion in two separate funds for mitigating nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions and investing in zero-emission vehicles as part of a settlement for installing devices designed to bypass U.S. auto emissions tests. (The two funds are shown below and described in greater detail in this blog post.)

Mitigation Trust to Reduce NOx emissions from heavy-duty vehicles

The Mitigation Trust will allocate funding to each state to spend on reducing the NOx emissions that were created by the altered VW vehicles. The funding will be disbursed within the state by one lead agency that must be approved by an appointed trustee. The trustee, investment firm Wilmington Trust, was selected in March. Once all parties confirm Wilmington Trust, which could happen any day, the Trust Effective Date will be established. The Trust Effective Date is essentially the “starter’s pistol” that will set the process of distributing Mitigation Trust funds to states in motion. The general timeline for applying for and receiving funds is shown below, though several deadlines are flexible and may proceed more quickly than the maximum amount of time allocated.

 

Cities and businesses should contact and work actively with the lead agencies in their states to identify and promote opportunities to replace older diesel engines and vehicles. Several states have already identified their lead agencies or principal contacts and are beginning to design plans for how the available funding will be spent. Though funding can be spent over 15 years, as much as two-thirds can be spent within the first two years. Therefore, it is in the best interest of cities or businesses to engage with state agencies early.

ZEV Investment to Expand public EV charging

VW’s initial ZEV Investment is also ready to be put into action through a $200 million California Investment Plan and a $300 million National Investment Plan that covers all other states. VW submitted separate investment plans that cover the next 30 months earlier this year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The EPA approved the National Investment Plan, which allocates $40 million to lower-powered community charging in 11 major cities and $190 million to higher-powered fast charging along selected highways across the nation. Community charging will be focused in New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Portland (OR), Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, Miami, and Raleigh. Estimated highway charging installations are displayed in Table 3 of the National Investment Plan (page 22).

Though the cities and corridors have been chosen, the sites and vendors have not. The process of selecting sites and vendors for the bulk of charging stations is scheduled for the second and third quarters of 2017. Cities identified for investments in community charging or nearby corridor charging can work with VW’s subsidiary, Electrify America, to identify optimal locations that may promote retail growth or adoption by low-income communities in multi-unit dwellings by hosting charging stations. Businesses may also benefit from increased traffic to use public charging stations (as C2ES has covered in a report on EV charging station business models) or from the opportunity to work with Electrify America to install charging stations.

CARB has not yet approved the California Investment Plan out of concerns for social equity and EV charging market competitiveness, sending a letter to Electrify America requesting that a supplemental plan reflect greater investments in low-income communities. Once CARB approves a plan, California cities and businesses should also consider opportunities to work with Electrify America to optimally site charging stations during the first 30-month round of investments. During the next round of investments, slated to begin in late 2019, proposals to Electrify America may be more successful if they incorporate CARB’s concerns and demonstrate air-quality benefits to low-income communities or a need to fill regional EV charging gaps.

With action on both VW settlements’ funding programs taking shape, cities and businesses should be prepared to identify opportunities to reduce NOx emissions and promote EV adoption .

 

EV sales are up, but we still need fuel economy standards

New technologies and industry investments are making electric vehicles (EVs) more affordable and approachable, expanding consumer choice and driving record-breaking U.S. EV sales. However, the continued popularity of pickups and SUVs shows the importance of maintaining federal fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the recent Washington Auto Show, I test drove the Toyota Prius Prime, the second-generation plug-in hybrid Prius model. The Prime features a larger battery range than its predecessor, is surprisingly roomy, and, once unplugged from the charging station, provides a similar driving experience as a gasoline-powered hybrid.

The Prime is the latest example of automakers developing vehicles that can compete both functionally and financially with traditionally-fueled vehicles.

In the all-electric vehicle market, consumers have had to choose between high costs or low battery.

  • Chevy has begun to change the equation with the low-cost, long-range all-electric Bolt, already released in California and Oregon, and slated for a national release within the next year.
  • Tesla, famous for its luxury vehicles, is preparing to manufacture the more affordable Model 3 that retains the company’s longer battery range.
  • Ford, Volkswagen, and many other major automakers are also developing more affordable EV models, both all-electric and plug-in hybrids, that will compete favorably with traditionally-fueled vehicles.
Figure 1: Range and Cost Comparison of All-Electric Vehicle Models


Consumers are responding to these new models and technologies. The reconfigured Prius Prime jumped from a dozen or so vehicles sold per month earlier in 2016 to more than 1,300 vehicles per month in when it was reintroduced in December and this past January, taking second place in the plug-in hybrid market. Of the five best-selling models since December (Chevy Bolt & Volt, Toyota Prius Prime, Tesla Model S & X), only Tesla’s Model S is not new or redesigned within the past 18 months.

2016 was the highest-selling year in the history of the U.S. EV market, with approximately 150,000 vehicles sold. December set a single-month EV sales record at more than 23,000 vehicles.

However, 2016 was also a record year for the U.S. auto market as a whole. Consequently, EV market share rose only slightly, from 0.67 percent in 2015 to 0.84 percent in 2016. (Some estimates can range higher.) In the same timeframe, light trucks (SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks) accounted for more than 60 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, and are expected to remain popular if oil prices stay low. Although EV purchases are increasing, there are at least 70 new light trucks purchased for each new electric vehicle. Plus, Americans are driving more miles than ever.

That’s why it’s important to maintain the federal fuel economy standards, which require automakers to improve the average emissions of the vehicles they sell over the next decade.

The fuel economy standards allow for consumers to choose SUVs and pickups under a separate “footprint,” but require that the greenhouse gas emissions of the larger footprint improve. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have reviewed the standards and found them to be practical, achievable and affordable. With the transportation sector now the heaviest-polluting sector in the nation, these fuel economy standards are critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Manufacturers are making great strides to expand the EV consumer base beyond early adopters. Many reputable analysts, such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the International Energy Agency, expect that consumer EV adoption will rise rapidly in the coming decades, helping to deeply decarbonize the sector. In the meantime, federal fuel economy standards can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all vehicle model and fuel types.

Positive steps on the road to more EV charging

Last year, I spoke to a Slate reporter who asked why the Obama Administration had not invested more in electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. Last night, the administration took steps to reduce transportation emissions by making charging easier and more affordable and by leading the way through a unified, national effort.

The administration announced several initiatives to promote EV adoption. Notably, $4.5 billion in funding has been designated to support guaranteed loans for the installation of new EV charging stations. The administration also plans to develop a guide for federal funding, financial, and technical assistance for EVs and EV charging infrastructure, as well as invest in research and partnerships that will expand EVs’ consumer appeal.

More funding

Range anxiety, or a simple lack of available charging options, continues to impede the growth of the EV market. The administration announced $4.5 billion in guaranteed loans through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Program Office to install EV charging stations. Expanding federal loans to include EV charging stations may help remove a major impediment to investing public charging by reducing the cost of capital.

A 2015 C2ES report recommended government loans in the short term to help stimulate the growth of public charging infrastructure and create a sustainable charging network. The report found that charging service providers face difficulties earning a return on investments for public charging projects, but could develop profitable business models with government financial support.

Federal standards

The administration is proposing to develop federal standards to assist with developing networks of DC fast charging stations, which can charge an EV in 30 minutes or less. The U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation will produce a guide to federal funding programs, financing incentives, and technical assistance for EVs and charging stations. The intervention of the federal government may help create some more consistency between charging networks with varying standards and processes, and the guide may establish an authoritative and inclusive resource for all stakeholders to turn to for a better understanding of EVs.

The proposal leverages existing programs, such as the congressionally approved 2015 FAST Act designating travel corridors for alternative fueling stations, to help expand DC fast charging networks.

This figure illustrates the business challenge facing charging service providers.

This figure illustrates the business challenge facing charging service providers. Over the expected life of the charging equipment, the direct revenue for the provision of charging services is less than the cost of owning and operating the charging station.

Consumer appeal

The White House’s announcement also includes new funding for research to cut EV charging time down to 10 minutes, which would appeal to consumers used to fueling gasoline-powered cars. Consumers may find charging easier with the inclusion of new companies in DOE’s workplace charging program and utility commitments to deploying new EV infrastructure.

There may be some criticism about why the federal government is investing this funding in EVs, and not other clean transportation technologies such as natural gas or hydrogen. EVs currently hit the sweet spot of offering greater carbon reduction potential than natural gas vehicles, with the capacity to get even cleaner as the electric grid decarbonizes, while attracting greater support from automakers and consumers than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Twenty-six EV models were sold in the United States last month, with automakers pledging many more models in the coming year.

Now that the transportation sector has become the largest U.S. greenhouse gas-producing sector, these initiatives will help bring clean transportation to consumers by making EV adoption easier and more enjoyable.