Cities Can Jump-start Climate Progress by Plugging in Their Vehicles

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Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, left, and Mayor Eric Garcetti pose next to an all-electric car in this 2015 photo.
AP Photo/Nick Ut

Daniel Cohan, Rice University

President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement reaffirmed what was already clear: The federal government is no longer leading American efforts to shrink our carbon footprint. But many state and local governments – along with businesses and consumers – aim to help fill this policy void.

At least a dozen governors have joined the United States Climate Alliance, committing their states to achieve emissions reductions consistent with President Barack Obama’s Paris pledge. More than 200 mayors are promising their cities will follow suit.

My research with my former student Shayak Sengupta about how cities can benefit from buying electric cars suggests that fuel-free municipal fleets can cut urban carbon footprints while improving public health and saving taxpayers money.

Options for states and cities

States can help curb emissions in many ways, such as by setting caps on power plant emissions and creating incentives and targets for renewable electricity.

Most of those steps lies beyond the jurisdiction of cities. So how can they take climate action?

Urban governments most strongly impact emissions by influencing the behavior of local residents and businesses through building codes and incentives, public transit and urban planning. Buying increasingly affordable electric vehicles gives cities an additional opportunity to cut climate-warming emissions by reducing the amount of fossil fuels their vehicles consume.

Historically, cities and transit agencies turned to natural gas as an alternative fuel for fleet vehicles and buses. However, our previous research showed that natural gas does not provide significant emissions savings compared with gasoline cars or diesel buses.

Electric vehicles, however, can bring about clear-cut reductions in carbon emissions.

Even buses can run on electricity now.
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The electric vehicle market

U.S. cities own few of the 540,000 electric cars on the road nationwide as of 2016. The nation’s two largest cities, New York City and Los Angeles, operate 1,000 and 200 electric cars, respectively.

That could soon change. Thirty cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, are seeking bulk-rate deals on electric vehicles. They’ve asked manufacturers to submit bids to supply up to 114,000 electric vehicles, ranging from police cruisers to trash haulers, at a total cost of roughly US$10 billion.

This surge in electric vehicle sales could make them more affordable not just for cities but for the rest of us too. That’s because emerging technologies typically get cheaper as production increases. A study by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute estimates that electric car batteries prices fall by 6 percent to 9 percent every time production doubles.

Some analysts forecast that as soon as 2025, electric cars will become cheaper than gasoline-powered cars. In some cases, they are already cheaper to own and operate over the vehicle’s lifetime, our research has shown. If cities help ramp up demand for electric cars faster than anticipated, this transition could happen even faster.

Municipal fleets

City-owned fleets are in some ways ideal candidates for electric-powered transportation. Cities operate large numbers of vehicles in densely populated areas, where emissions most endanger human health.

Local driving by municipal employees is well-suited for electric cars. For example, the Nissan Leaf now has a range of as much as 107 miles, and the Chevy Bolt can travel 238 miles without recharging.

Meanwhile, electric models of pickup trucks, dump trucks, buses and police cruisers are becoming increasingly available.

Houston’s vehicles

We studied vehicle options available to Houston, which operates a fleet of about 12,000 vehicles, in 2015. Those options included two gasoline-powered Toyota sedans (the Corolla and the Prius), the natural gas-powered Honda Civic, the plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius and the fully electric Nissan Leaf. Since all these sedans seat five passengers, they are interchangeable.

Because Houston in 2015 bought 75 percent of its electricity from wind farms (it now draws even more of its power from wind and solar sources), we calculated that the fully electric Leaf would have reduced life cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 87 percent relative to the gasoline-powered Corolla over seven years. About half of those benefits would have been lost if the Leaf was charged from the fossil-heavy grid elsewhere in Texas.

Financially, the savings on fuel and maintenance would have more than offset the $12,000 premium for buying a Leaf instead of a Corolla. We estimated that Houston would have saved about 4 cents per mile while operating the Leafs, as long as enough charging stations were available. That’s even before counting any savings from bulk purchases or federal tax credits.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District operates its own charging stations, making it easier for drivers to choose electric vehicles.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Charging stations

One significant problem holding back demand for electric vehicles is the shortage of charging stations. Greater availability of charging stations assures cities and consumers that full electrics like the Nissan Leaf can complete their trips, and lets plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt operate mostly in electric mode.

That’s why cities like Pittsburgh have obtained state grants to build their own, while utilities in Seattle and Kansas City are building charging stations to jump-start demand for electric cars.

The ConversationElectric municipal fleets won’t by themselves propel cities all the way to their Paris-based pledges. But by speeding the adoption of charging stations and cleaner cars, they could help curb emissions – while saving money for urban taxpayers and improving public health.

Daniel Cohan, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, Rice University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

I Caught Up With An Austin Startup Providing Real-Time Transit Options

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Urbanites and UT students have a new way to get around asRideScout™ announced its formal launch in Austin this week. CEO Joseph Kopser and his team have built a real-time, mobile aggregator and comparison engine for ground transportation options. And with ties to the sharing economy and transit’s rising importance, they appear to be in a good spot.

Two big hooks provide the lure for the app. Its “best ride” ranking is an easy way to see pricing and estimated times. But the kicker is the breadth of options you get. Buses, transit, subways, taxis, limos, shuttles, car-sharing, and even pedicabs are included. The iPhone app has been out a month or so, and an Android version should be ready this Fall.

It’s been a quick ascent. Just last spring, RideScout was still embryonic before placing second at the HATCH Pitch Competition at last year’s SXSW. From there, Kopser and some of his West Point alums raised $350k  and started building in late July.

ridescout_ride_results_2Now it’s in a bit of a perfect storm. Cities are faced with infrastructure challenges everywhere, as traffic increases, roads are in need of repair, and urban populations continue to rise. The low-hanging fruit for many metros is to optimize what already exists. When buses or rail cars aren’t filled, those are idle resources that are funded with taxpayer dollars. That’s one of the pieces that’s caught the City of Austin’s attention.

“RideScout will push highly motivated citizens to alternative modes of transportation, helping to fill underutilized public transit capacity to keep more cars off the roads,“ said Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro.

Hemingson and other city planners have no doubt seen the light, or at least the data.
Here’s an excerpt from NextCity that pulled figures from the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ recent report. 

“Public transit ridership increased by 34 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to the American Public Transit Association, and the ASCE report states that access to transit across the country has grown by nearly 10 percent.

That’s the big upside. But here’s the other part.

“Although transit investment has also increased, “deficient and deteriorating” regional transit systems cost the national economy $90 billion in 2010.”

Until those crumbling pieces can be fixed, cities will need more innovation from the RideScouts of the world. A whole ecosystem needs to be nurtured around infrastructure. Part of it’s behavior, but as we’ve seen with other trends, unlocking data with the right technology can open up all sorts of possibilities. As Austin City Councilman Chris Riley puts it, “the default answer for transportation in Austin doesn’t have to be a personal car.”

Last week’s SXSW Interactive was a good test for the young company. Kopser struck deals with  AirBnB and some of the car-sharing companies in town and was able to refine some ideas they’ve been building on.

Gensler_installation


However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

As SXSW ended, there were other indications they might be onto something. In SX flair, urban design firm Gensler challenged people to come up with ideas to improve the city. It solicited feedback using a physical installation (photo above) with the hashtag #designatx. What were the top things mentioned? Mass transit, traffic, and congestion issues,  things the firm described as “practical and things that could be implemented.”

“Austin has the perfect launch city mix: terrible traffic congestion and rapid population growth of technology savvy residents looking for alternatives to car ownership,” said Kopser.

Can’t argue with that.

First posted at AustinStartup.

Recapping CleanTX Foundation’s Solar and EV Event

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

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The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

 

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

 

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.
Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

 

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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Make Sure You Can Walk To Stuff Around Your Neighborhood

Walk-ability equals home value.

“Our research shows that real estate values increase as neighborhoods became more walkable, where everyday needs, including working, can be met by walking, transit or biking. There is a five-step “ladder” of walkability, from least to most walkable. On average, each step up the walkability ladder adds $9 per square foot to annual office rents, $7 per square foot to retail rents, more than $300 per month to apartment rents and nearly $82 per square foot to home values.”