Navigant Research Blog

U.S. National Parks and Electric Vehicles: A Match Made in Heaven?

— April 8, 2014

The U.S. Clean Cities program and the National Park Service (NPS) recently announced nine new projects to deploy clean vehicles at U.S. national parks. These projects are part of the Clean Cities National Park Initiative launched in 2010. The nine projects mainly feature plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs).  Around 21 vehicles will be installed through the funding, including some low-speed electric vehicles (EVs).  The projects also include the installation of EV chargers for park visitors. While any move to make the U.S. parks cleaner is welcome, the relatively modest ambitions of this funding effort reflect the challenge that parks present in the adoption of EV or HEV technology.

Parks have long been an attractive target for greener transportation. This is not only for symbolic reasons, but also for practical reasons. Diesel and gas vehicles are noisy and disruptive. Park vehicles may spend time idling, which is both an emissions problem and a cost concern given the large amount of fuel essentially wasted during idling. These factors would seem to make PEV and HEV technology a good option, but to date, deployments have largely been pilot or demonstration programs and there has yet to be a full-scale shift toward electric drives at the U.S. parks.

A Building Barrier

One major barrier has been the lack of truly commercial vehicles available. As discussed in the Navigant Research report Hybrid and Electric Trucks, most of the traditional truck original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are offering hybrid versions in the larger trucks classes that are not applicable to the park service. In the truck category, parks would primarily utilize utility trucks, pickup trucks, or vans and trucks outfitted to transport passengers.  These would be vehicles in the Class 2b light duty category or medium duty Classes 3-5, where, until recently, there was more attention focused on producing electrified vehicles for delivery service.

Even though pickup trucks are among the top-selling vehicle in the United States, U.S. OEMs have tailed off production of hybrid pickups and only ever offered demonstration models of plug-in trucks.  However, in the past 18 months, there has been an uptick in companies focused on these class levels and in applications with some applicability to national parks. In January, U.S. startup VIA Trucks announced a major commitment by Canadian company SunCountry to place VIA’s plug-in vans into passenger transport services at Best Western hotels. VIA also develops plug-in electric utility trucks, which will be used at several electric utilities in a pilot project funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). U.S. company Odyne Systems will be delivering 120 utility trucks through the same DOE funding; the plug-in system allows utility workers to avoid engine idling by running equipment off of the battery.

Looking at the larger class of passenger buses that are used in national parks, the biggest push is coming from China’s BYD, which has been targeting parks and transit agencies. While most of the company’s orders are outside of the United States, BYD is making a strong push for the U.S. market. After winning bids in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, the company began to face major backlash from activists and its U.S. competitors. The Long Beach order was recently canceled, although, evidently, the reason was simply a paperwork glitch. In any case, this environment would make it difficult for the NPS to adopt these buses until BYD becomes more established in the United States through transit deployments like the one in Los Angeles.

While increased vehicle availability will help make electric and hybrid options more feasible for any park looking to convert, the issue of the price premium still looms large. With hybrids costing well over 25% more than conventional vehicles and electric buses often reaching a 100% price premium, cash-strapped public services like the NPS will likely find themselves unable to make the switch even if they want to. Lower-cost options, like propane, continue to see uptake in national parks for this reason. This also explains why the Clean Cities National Park Initiative is still necessary to move these vehicles into U.S. parks.

 

Criticism of EV Battery Environmental Impacts Misses the Point

— April 2, 2014

The environmental impact of electric vehicles (EVs) remains the subject of debate, with Tesla Motors becoming the latest scapegoat for allegedly contributing to acid rain in China.  Bloomberg News points out that EV batteries require the use of graphite, which is mostly mined and processed in China.  Graphite mining pollutes the air and water and harms agricultural crops.  The average electric car contains about 110 lbs of graphite, and Tesla’s proposed Gigafactory is expected to single-handedly double the demand for graphite in batteries.

While these are valid concerns, they ignore a few larger facts: the oil industry has far greater overall environmental impact; the production of electricity is much cleaner than refining and burning gasoline; and recycling and reuse techniques are revolutionizing the battery industry.  Tesla, meanwhile, has responded to the graphite concerns. The recent 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill reminds us of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, in which 10.8 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska.  Ironically, the congested Houston Ship Channel (one of the world’s busiest waterways) was partially closed over the Valdez anniversary because of a weekend oil spill of nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like crude.

Compared to Gas

Overall, the equivalent lifecycle environmental impact of electricity is much less harmful than gasoline – assuming it isn’t entirely generated by coal.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams (g) of carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned in a vehicle.  An equivalent 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity emits about 9,750g of CO2 when generated in a coal-fired power plant, 6,000g when generated in a natural gas plant, 900g from a hydroelectric plant, 550g from solar, and 150g each from wind and nuclear.  These figures include the entire lifecycle analysis, including mining, construction, transportation, and the burning of fuel.  Since 63% of the 2012 electricity mix in the United States was derived from non-coal energy sources, it has been estimated that EVs emit about half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average conventional vehicle.

At the same time, innovative recycling and reuse techniques are significantly increasing the sustainability of EV batteries.  In the United States and Europe, all automotive batteries are required by law to be recycled.  This has made the lead-acid battery industry one of the most sustainable industries in the world, with nearly 99% recycling rates of all the batteries’ components.  Additionally, the world’s first large-scale power storage system made from reused EV batteries was recently completed in Japan.

Second Lives for Batteries

While these approaches do not fully solve the problems associated with graphite mining, the environmental impact created by the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of batteries is significantly lowered for each additional cycle a battery supplies.  If battery lifetimes can be doubled, the negative environmental impact is cut in half.  Navigant Research’s report, Second-Life Batteries: From PEVs to Stationary Applications, also points out that a global second-life battery market will create new businesses and jobs in addition to improving sustainability.  The global second-life battery business is expected to be worth near $100 million by 2020.

Even with the negative externalities associated with graphite production, EVs still offer an improved overall environmental picture than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  And Tesla, perhaps in response to pollution criticisms, has announced that it will source the raw materials for the proposed Gigafactory exclusively from North American supply chains. Producing graphite in North America is a much cleaner process than in China.

 

EVs at Home on the Texas Range

— March 21, 2014

Selling electric vehicles (EVs) in oil-rich Texas is comparable to Nixon going to China, and the effort thus far has had similarly unexpected but successful results.  Cars that do not use gas are proving surprisingly popular in the Lone Star State, and one of the main drivers for EVs has nothing to do with the cars themselves.

Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts report estimates that Texas has around 5,000 registered EVs currently and that this number will grow to nearly 100,000 by 2023.  While the well-to-do from Texas’ oil & gas industry can afford the higher price of an EV, the state’s utility structure is playing a major role in supporting EV sales.

As a deregulated state, Texas allows utilities to directly participate in EV charging, which provides a new revenue stream for power distribution companies that, in other states, are focused on reducing load through energy efficiency measures.  Because they can (and because it increases their profits), utilities NRG, Austin Energy, and CPS Energy have all begun installing EV charging stations across the state.  A visible, reliable network of charging stations is essential to increasing consumers’ confidence that they won’t have to worry about getting stranded with a dwindling battery while about town.

Among the Drillers

CPS Energy’s network of charging stations helps to prevent the state from running afoul of federal air quality laws.  NRG’s eVgo network has several subscription options to reduce the cost of home and public charging.  Nissan LEAF drivers in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas also have access to free charging thanks to Nissan, which is subsidizing the NRG eVgo network in an attempt to bolster vehicle sales.   Another EV charging network growing in Texas is Tesla Motors’ SuperCharger network, which encircles the Dallas, Austin, and Houston areas.

Power providers in Texas are also interested in promoting EVs because the vehicles can help offset the variability of the vast wind resources being installed across the state, which will make it one of the largest producers in the world.  Texas’ grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is working with the Southwest Research Institute to demonstrate using EVs to counterbalance wind energy production in the state.

Austin Energy has made the smart decision to use only renewable energy from wind and solar to power its charging stations.  This negates the argument that EVs merely transfer emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack of a power plant.  The city of Austin now has nearly 1,000 EVs, according to the Austin American Statesman.

Texas is also under consideration as a location for Tesla Motors’ proposed Gigafactory, which could produce batteries for hundreds of thousands of EVs.  If that happens, we’ll see even more gasless cars roaming between the oil & gas wells in Texas.

 

Formula E Racing Will Showcase Wireless Charging

— November 26, 2013

Bikes_webQualcomm took the early lead in the wireless electric vehicle (EV) charging race, and starting in 2014, the company will test the limits of its wireless power transfer technology on the Formula E (electric) racing circuit.

San Diego-based Qualcomm, which is primarily known for developing wireless technology for mobile handsets, will take the technology the company has been developing for 2 years, including intellectual property (IP) acquired  from the University of Auckland to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin, and Beijing as part of the all-electric Fia Formula E racing series.  For the first year, electric safety vehicles will be charged by Qualcomm Halo’s 20 kW charging technology, and in future years, the race cars themselves will be charged wirelessly.

From Track to Street

During a panel discussion at the recent EVS27 conference in Barcelona, Qualcomm’s Anthony Thomson said that the company will install wireless chargers at the race locations and leave the charging equipment in place after the race concludes for use by other EVs.  The 10 driving teams (7 have been announced) participating in Formula E field two drivers per team, and each driver will have two cars – one for distance driving (with reduced power) and one for sprints – and they will manage their vehicle charging for optimal performance.

The Formula E races will be a high profile platform for showcasing the latest in EV technology, as the quiet vehicles open up new possibilities for communicating with the drivers.  The racing series does not restrict the technologies used in the electric motors or batteries, and racing teams will experiment with new technologies on the track before they are introduced to commercial vehicles.

Formula E will also highlight how much quieter EVs are than fossil fuel burning cars, as the series will include interaction where selected fans will be able to talk with the drivers during the race.  Drayson Racing, which will compete in the Formula E series, announced that it is licensing the Qualcomm Halo Wireless EV Charging technology from Qualcomm, which is focusing on licensing the technology rather than making final products for sale.

The New Standard

Qualcomm is now taking a victory lap after the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) selected the 85 kHz frequency used by the company’s wireless charging system as the basis for an upcoming wireless EV charging standard, to be known as J2954.  While other companies in the nascent industry are likely to reengineer their products to operate at that frequency, Qualcomm will not have to make adjustments.

Wireless vehicle charging is still in its early days, though bus companies in South Korea and some automakers have expressed interest in replacing cabled charging with the convenience of wireless charging.  While the industry is small today (just over $1 million annually), according to Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment, by 2020, the global market for wireless charging equipment will surpass $420 million annually.

 

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