Can we cut US transportation energy in half (in 30 years)?
Audi of America President Scott Keogh and National Grid US President Dean Seavers are the chairs of the Alliance to Save Energy’s 50×50 Commission, a campaign to cut US transportation energy use by 50% by 2050. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto (D) and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price (R) are members of a diverse coalition including manufacturers, consumer groups, utilities, environmental groups, and public officials.
Natasha Vidangos, Vice President of Research for the Alliance to Save Energy, answered some questions about the campaign for CleanTechnica.
How can transportation energy savings be facilitated for everyday people?
Transportation is the second biggest daily expense for most American families – often above healthcare or food. For many people, there also aren’t many viable alternatives: if you drive to work and gasoline prices go up overnight, you might not have a second choice. This challenge is especially hard on some groups, like low-income and disabled communities. We can do a lot better. Investing in better public transit provides the most efficient and lowest-cost option for many Americans, but it is only sustainable if the systems are reliable, affordable, and deliver a positive customer experience. Electric vehicles, while more expensive to buy, are already, on average, cheaper to own over the lifetime of a vehicle due to lower fuel and maintenance costs – and they use less total energy. We need policies that encourage people and companies to use these efficient vehicles.
Are there any estimates about how much they could save?
Given the number of variables and the wide scope of our initiative, we don’t yet have an exact number. But we do have some important pieces of the puzzle, including studies showing how electric vehicles will bring down costs significantly, the benefits of designing transportation as an integrated system of services, and research on the benefits of investing in public transit. This work is critical, but the full picture is complex. We’ll be looking into this topic over the coming year with some of our own modeling work.
How can an integrated strategy be created to include technology, urban planning, transportation planning, transit and so forth?
This is an important point that often goes underappreciated: creating an integrated strategy requires enormous coordination among different industries and agencies that have a long history of working independently. You have new technologies and services, like ride-hailing apps, which have taken on a significant market share in a very short amount of time. Electric vehicle markets are growing quickly, and automated vehicles may get there, too. It’s exciting, but there’s also no plan for it, really, and some of these technologies raise new and tricky questions about jurisdictions and policy. It creates an urgent imperative for all parties to work together to design a transportation system that works for everyone. I’m optimistic about the public and private sectors working together here, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
In terms of transit, will there be more electric buses, trains, and shuttles?
Yes, almost certainly. The growth in the electric bus industry over a very short period of time has been quite impressive. These fleets are generally a great opportunity to switch to electric vehicles. (Our initiative did not cover trains, but I understand similar trends exist.)
Would such a strategy include personal transportation like bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, electric skateboards, and the like?
Yes, it really must. These are some of the most energy-efficient ways to travel, and can reduce road congestion and air pollution. In many cases they are the most affordable way to travel, if not free. The availability of bikeshare services and biking and walking paths – especially those that are designed to be safe – make an enormous difference in the attractiveness of these options.
Would the strategy include suburbs and rural areas or only cities?
While some of the recommendations in the report do focus on urban areas, our report has recommendations that are applicable for all. For instance, strong fuel economy standards save costs on fuel for nearly every consumer that owns a vehicle, regardless of where they live. Supporting electric vehicles can lower the costs of driving per mile, which can have an outsized benefit for rural populations that tend to drive further and may find refueling at home is a more convenient experience. There are also early indications that the ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are changing commuting patterns for suburban dwellers.
How has the DFW Airport been a shining example when it comes to solving regional transportation issues?
DFW is an excellent example of an institution that needs to integrate multiple transportation options in a time-sensitive and convenient manner, with significant implications for energy costs. Their participation brings to the Commission a range of experience in addressing sustainability and complex logistics – again, exploring system-level opportunities that can unlock much greater savings and a better experience for passengers. DFW recently announced a new project with the Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory to do exactly this, and optimize the movement of people and goods.
Will Big Data or data science play a role in resolving transportation problems?
Absolutely. There’s an enormous amount of data – who’s going where and when, what transit service exists, the traffic conditions, the weather, and so much more. If we use that data correctly we could have incredibly sophisticated optimizations, and even predictive solutions, for how we manage the movement of people and goods. You could see far more accurate predictions of customer demand, and right-size transit service based on numbers of riders and weather conditions. You could have utilities or other companies placing electric vehicle charging stations in the most effective locations. The possibilities are endless, but there’s a lot that we need to figure out together to make it work.
How much of a role in reducing transportation energy consumption be played by EVs?
It’s a very big part – electrification is one of the strongest levers in the list for getting to our goal of reducing energy use by 50 percent by 2050. But it’s certainly not the only part. We also need to consider the efficiency of how we use the vehicles, optimize them across the transportation system, strengthen fuel economy standards, deploy other vehicle types including hybrids and certain alternative fuel vehicles in certain instances, such as in freight.
How many EVs might there be on US roads by 2050?
There are many institutions that make projections – Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040, 55% of all new car sales across the globe, and 33% of the vehicles on the road, will be electric, while BP predicts that in 2040, more than 30% of passenger travel will be in electric vehicles. But these projections are based on assumptions about “business as usual” – in reality, this isn’t some theoretical future that’s out of our hands; it really depends on what policymakers do today, especially because many vehicles are around for a couple of decades. So to have an enormously more efficient vehicle fleet in 2050 – and that’s what we need – policymakers need to act now to help make the shift happen.
How important is it to keep adding more public fast chargers, and where should they be added first?
We know that to build better transportation efficiency, we need to deliver a better customer experience with more convenient options. For EVs, this means consumers must be comfortable knowing they’ll be able to charge their vehicles whenever needed. Home charging might shoulder most of the burden for folks living in single-family dwellings, but many EV owners take longer trips, or live in places where home or work charging isn’t an option. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a study last year to figure out how many fast-charge stations are needed, and they estimated that about 8,500 strategically located stations, with an average of three plugs each, would provide a minimum level of coverage for 7 million electric vehicles across the country. That estimate required a number of assumptions, and we may have a clearer sense of the need as we move ahead and see how EV markets unfold. Whatever the exact numbers turn out to be, we need to think about vehicle electrification together with the charging stations, to help the market reach the point where it drives itself.