We’re Electrifying the Road
Patty Monahan is Program Director, Transportation, for the Energy Foundation.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: Patty, tell us a little about the Energy Foundation.
Patty Monahan: The Energy Foundation is a philanthropic organization. Our mission is to spur the transition to a clean energy economy and dramatically cut carbon emissions.
PUF: Decarbonizing the whole economy is one of the major goals, correct?
Patty Monahan: Yes, decarbonizing the power sector as we electrify everything is our primary goal.
Transportation recently surpassed the power sector as the number one source of global warming pollution in the United States. With renewable power on the rise, the grid is getting cleaner.
Now, we need to turn our attention to transportation. There are two key strategies for clean transportation. One is to increase the efficiency of the fleet through strong fuel economy standards.
The second is to electrify our transportation system. To meet 2050 carbon reduction goals, we need to electrify almost all light-duty vehicles and many heavy-duty vehicles, and we need to make sure that the grid is near zero-carbon.
PUF: How are we going to get there?
Patty Monahan: What we're seeing right now is that battery costs are dropping fast.
Every year when we look back, we see that the prices are dropping more quickly than analysts predicted, which means that we'll reach cross-parity with traditional, conventional vehicles sooner.
Bloomberg Energy Finance predicts that electric vehicles will be cheaper than conventional vehicles by 2025, and that's just the vehicles themselves.
On a life-cycle basis, when you account for fuel, electricity for vehicles costs the equivalent of about a dollar a gallon. Consumers will save money on the full cost of the vehicle even when the vehicle itself is more expensive.
PUF: Where do you focus your attention to make the biggest impact?
Patty Monahan: We have multiple strategies to advance transportation electrification. One is to set strong efficiency standards, which is a signal for car companies to invest in electrification.
We also support policies like the zero-emission vehicle mandate, which is law in California and nine other states across the country. About thirty percent of the new vehicle market is covered by these policies, which require car companies to produce and sell a certain number of electric vehicles.
We also work at the state level to advance policies to build out new charging infrastructure, or to support incentives for consumers to be able to purchase and use these vehicles. These policies can incentivize utilities and third-party charging companies to invest in charging infrastructure that the public can use.
PUF: What are the challenges?
Patty Monahan: While battery prices are dropping, and the vehicles have great performance, there are three critical barriers, which we call the "three C's": cost, convenience and consumer awareness.
These vehicles cost more, and price parity is still several years off from conventional cars.
Second, the charging infrastructure still is not as convenient as the traditional gas station, causing consumers to have range anxiety. Parents are anxious about things like, will they be able to get to their kid's soccer game if their vehicle runs out of electricity? Teaching consumers how to plug in their vehicle at night at home can be a barrier in itself.
The third major barrier is consumer awareness. Consumers don't necessarily understand what an electric vehicle is. If you ask them, they think maybe a Prius is an electric vehicle.
The Energy Foundation funds grantees to work at the state level to help overcome these barriers.
PUF: How do you manage that?
Patty Monahan: Right now, car companies are investing in electric vehicles. Over the next three years we're going to see a lot of new models come to market.
As the vehicles get delivered, we need to have a charging infrastructure ready and available for consumers to use. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Without chargers, we could see the market for electric vehicles dry up.
Our view is that we should be investing today in a robust charging infrastructure network so that when these vehicles come to market, they can refuel easily.
In addition, utilities need to play an active role to help consumers understand how and when to charge their vehicles. Charging vehicles at night or at times when the grid has excess generation from renewable power, is both a win for the consumer and the environment.
PUF: There are gasoline stations everywhere and there aren't the same convenience and number of those charging stations.
Patty Monahan: We're not seeing the oil companies investing very deeply, at least in the United States, in charging. Going forward, we can envision a future where gasoline stations are converted into charging stations. We also see a primary role for utilities, who are poised to help build out the charging infrastructure and promote charging behaviors that support a clean and stable grid.
PUF: What are these charging stations going to look like? Are they going to look like gas stations?
Patty Monahan: In Europe, Shell has invested in adding charging stations to some of their refueling stations. So, it's possible that we could see that happening in the United States as well.
There is a lot of change happening right now in the world of technology and in how we charge vehicles. In the future, we will have the opportunity to charge them smartly so that they provide a grid benefit. This means that consumers who charge their vehicles at optimal times could save money. This might be particularly important for fleets, whether they are transit buses or Lyft and Uber-type transportation services.
As the system becomes more sophisticated, utilities could even offer customers incentives to make micro adjustments to charging based on the needs of the grid. Those are all very viable possibilities over the next five, ten, twenty years.
PUF: What's your vision for say, 2030? How far can the country go with electric vehicles?
Patty Monahan: It's not just cars. We're talking about trucks and buses. Electric transit buses today are available that over the life cycle are competitive economically.
It's the multifaceted electrification of the transportation system that we're hoping to achieve. We're also seeing a big shift in mobility happening.
Folks who can't afford a vehicle are using an app on their phone to call a mobility service like Lyft or Uber to get from Point A to Point B.
And now with self-driving vehicles on the horizon, we may see fleets like Lyft and Uber become electric. Basically, the more miles you drive a vehicle and the more you pay attention to the fuel cost, the more you're going to turn towards electrification. It's just going to be cheaper.
A lot of the barriers that an individual consumer experiences go away when you're talking about a fleet.
PUF: How did you get into this field?
Patty Monahan: I worked at the Union of Concerned Scientists as the deputy director of their clean vehicle program. Before that, I worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and have been involved with energy analysis and policy for thirty years now.
It's an exciting time to be involved in the transportation field. Technology and the sharing economy are creating transformative possibilities in mobility.
Between electrification, mobility as a service and autonomy, there are revolutionary changes happening. With the right policies in place, these changes could usher in a very clean transportation future.
PUF 2.0 Articles: We’re Electrifying the Road