Navigant Research Blog

‘Costly’ Amtrak Payments Dwarfed by Parking Largesse

— December 16, 2014

Rail service company Amtrak posted its annual financial report on November 25, and progress was reported all around.  Revenue ($3.2 billion) and ridership (31.6 million passengers) are up over the previous year, and the operating loss of $227 million was the lowest since way back in 1973.  However, the loss would have been much greater if not for payments from states and the federal government, which pony up nearly $2 billion annually to support infrastructure upgrades and other costs.

Amtrak is profitable in the Northeast, where it is viewed as indispensable for commuting along the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., but runs far in the red elsewhere, especially on long-distance routes.  For fiscal year 2015, Amtrak has requested a federal grant of $1.6 billion, and the number gets higher each year to counter the tunnels, bridges, and tracks that continue to fall into disrepair.

No Free Parking

Perpetually deficit-running Amtrak is a favorite target for fiscal conservatives, such as Mitt Romney, who frequently spoke of defunding the service during the 2012 presidential election.  However, the federal government is actually funding the parking of private vehicles at a much higher level.  According to a new report by the TransitCenter and the Frontier Group, employers providing tax-free parking allowances costs the federal government $7.3 billion annually in lost revenue.

The Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’s) tax code allows parking allowances of up to $250 per month sans taxes, which is nearly twice the amount allowable for taking public transit ($130), and more than 10 times the allowance for bicycle commuters ($20).  The study claims that the tax abatement adds approximately 820,000 commuters who would otherwise find other means of getting to work, including motorists who increase use of roads, another hidden cost to taxpayers.

The True Costs

According to Streetsblog.org, Congress is violating the IRS maximum parking allowance by providing free street parking to staffers in pricey downtown D.C.  So we have CAFE regulations aimed at reducing transportation emissions by requiring carmakers to invest billions to produce increasingly fuel efficient vehicles, while at the same time, we subsidize the use of private vehicles in congested urban areas at a cost more than 3 times the total spent to support Amtrak.  Taken together, these policies can be viewed as somewhere between inconsistent and outright contradictory.

 

Street Lights Add EV Charging

— December 11, 2014

Sometimes a solution forms at the intersection of two challenges that may not seem, at first glance, to have anything in common.  For example, cities are perpetually seeking ways to increase revenue, and many owners of electric vehicles (EVs) want access to ubiquitous charging infrastructure.

Enter the new concept of retrofitting street lights with money-saving LEDs and EV charging ports.  City managers are moving toward central control of street lights by adding a control node, which enables them to reduce cost and integrate the lights with other systems, as my colleague Jesse Foote recently wrote.  With smart street lighting technology (as covered in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Street Lighting) in place, EV charging capabilities can also be added to street lights, creating a new revenue stream for municipalities.

A Light and a Charge

Among the first pilots of this combination are occurring in the cities of Munich in Germany, Aix-en-Provence in France, and Brasov in Romania.  BMW has two such lights at its headquarters in Munich and will add a series of enhanced lights in the city next year.  A consortium called Telewatt, led by lighting manufacturer Citelum, is similarly installing LED street lights with EV charging in Aix-en-Provence.  In Romania, local company Flashnet has integrated its inteliLIGHT management platform with an EV charger.

Motorists can pay for the EV charging using a mobile phone app.  Cities that have regulations allowing them to provide EV charging services can gain revenue to help balance the books.  They can also balance the additional power demand of EVs within their overall power management system.  Placing a Level 1 or Level 2 charging outlet on a light pole reduces the installation cost of bringing power to the curb, which otherwise can be several times greater than the cost of the equipment.  Cities that install these systems will help drive demand for EVs, which has the added benefit of increasing urban air quality.

This is another example of the integration of seemingly disparate city services into a smart city.  As detailed by Navigant Research’s Smart Cities Research Service, the move toward integrating power, water, transportation, waste, and building management will yield considerable savings while improving the quality of urban life for city dwellers.

 

Will the Natural Gas Boom Help EVs?

— November 11, 2014

Natural gas is better used to generate electricity to power electric vehicles (EVs) than as a direct transportation fuel, according to a new study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  The study, entitled Well-to-Wheel Analysis of Direct and Indirect Use of Natural Gas in Passenger Vehicles, rates EVs powered by electricity from natural gas as being more energy efficient, less polluting, and cheaper to fuel than natural gas vehicles.

A contributing factor in the analysis is that natural gas power plants, especially combined cycle power plants, are very efficient in creating electricity, and when that electricity is used for locomotion by an electric motor, the net efficiency is higher than that of a natural gas engine.  The study assesses losses and energy used throughout the system, including leaks during transportation (from pipelines, etc.) and during compression and decompression of the gas in the case of compressed natural gas vehicles.  In the case of EVs, the study assesses power losses throughout the distribution grid, EV charging, and the power transfer to and from the battery.

As seen in the figure below, the study concludes that even a low-efficiency natural gas power plant would provide a more energy efficient source of electricity than using gasoline in a car.  The study used the Nissan LEAF and the natural gas Honda Civic GX as the baseline for the vehicle fuel efficiency.

Wheel-to-Wheel Energy Use

(Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2, are also lower in the case of EVs when either the current mix of generation sources or any type of natural gas power plant are used to create the electricity.  And, as is well known, electricity is also cheaper as a transportation fuel.  Oak Ridge estimated at time of the study that natural gas costs $1.65 per 25 miles for compressed natural gas vehicles, compared to $1.02 for electricity.

Pipeline Peril

It may seem counterintuitive that an extra step in fuel conversion (i.e., gas to electricity) would still be more efficient, but the greater efficiency of stationary gas turbines relative to small engines (as referenced here by Forbes) explains the math.

However, turning natural gas into electricity for EVs requires sufficient pipeline capacity, and a surge of EVs could overwhelm the regional grid if charging occurs at peak times.  Natural gas also has to compete with other forms of generation on price, and there’s no guarantee that the surplus of natural gas from shale would find its way into EVs, as it may simply replace coal.

The study makes the case for facilities that have combined heat and power to add EVs to the fleet instead of adding the significant cost of a natural gas refueling station.  Conversely, a significant argument for natural gas vehicles is their longer driving range and lower upfront cost.  If an EV’s driving range of 80 to 100 miles doesn’t match with the driving requirements, then the economics or efficiencies won’t matter.

 

Partnering Takes the Pain Out of Paying for EV Charging

— October 27, 2014

At the dawn of the modern electric vehicle (EV) era (way back in 2010), EV industry participants recognized that a simple way to pay for vehicle charging was critical to EV adoption.  In fact, I recall having conversations with at least one international payment processing company back then regarding the need for a central clearinghouse for EV charging payments.  I described this segment as a small niche that would grow into a major opportunity over time.  Neither that company nor others chose to start building the necessary relationships.  But today, after years of considerable talk and little action, progress is finally being made as charging networks are collaboration and payment clearinghouses are starting to emerge.

During the past half-decade, there have been numerous tales of the frustrations of EV drivers who carry multiple cards to be able to access competing proprietary networks.  The Hubject consortium in Europe has been leading the charge to make charging more consistent by simplifying customer authorization, and the group recently announced a method that enables mobile phones to pay for EV charging.

The PayPal Factor

The intercharge direct system is powered by online payment system PayPal.  Drivers scan a QR code on the charging station with their phone, which connects to the intercharge website where PayPal and other payment options are offered.  Customers who have a contract with an EV service provider can pay their existing rates, and more importantly, EV drivers without a contract can still access any of the 3,000 charging stations that support intercharge.

Things have come full circle for PayPal, which was founded by EV maker Tesla Motor’s founder, Elon Musk.  (Note the irony that, since Tesla offers free charging at its charging website, PayPal largely won’t come into play for its customers.)  PayPal is an effective backend payment system, since it’s used globally for small payment amounts.  It is currently being used in the United States for EV charging payments by General Electrics’s WattStation, and in October ChargePoint announced that it would begin accepting PayPal as well.

Reducing the cost and hassle of roaming between EV charging networks will increase the use of public charging stations, which will result in more charging stations being made available, and in turn higher levels of EV adoption.

Makers Make Progress

Efforts to expand EV charging in the United States are slowly paying off, thanks in part to the work of the EV manufacturers themselves.  Nissan is offering free public charging to buyers of the LEAF and convinced competitors ChargePoint, Car Charging Group, AeroVironment, and NRG to each support its EZ-Charge card.  BMW’s ChargeNow program offers a single card for paying at stations from ChargePoint and NRG’s eVgo network, as well as other partners internationally.

Not all partnerships in the area have worked out; ChargePoint launched an ill-fated joint venture with ECOtality in 2013 called Collaboratev that would have streamlined payment processes across both networks, had ECOtality not gone bankrupt only a few months later.

While proprietary payment systems make business sense for the charging networks, they hurt more than help EV owners and automakers.  If the expected millions of EVs are to rely on public charging, roaming between networks should be as simple as roaming between mobile phone networks or getting money from any ATM.  These recent developments provide hope that such interconnections are starting to emerge.

 

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