Electric Vehicles Use Local Power to Cut Pollution and Driving Costs (Episode 29)

Electric vehicles are enabling energy democracy.

That’s the takeaway from the latest Building Local Power podcast episode, a discussion between guest host and Communications Manager Nick Stumo-Langer, Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell, and Energy Democracy initiative researcher Karlee Weinmann. The conversation features a number of topics, including: the trajectory electric vehicles hold in renewable energy technology, generally; the ways that cities in the wake of recent hurricanes can rebuild to better weather the storms thanks to energy resiliency; and how residents of cities, large and small, can pressure their communities to enact better policies.

The springboard for this conversation is our June 2017 report on electric vehicles: Choosing the Electric Avenue – Unlocking Savings, Emissions Reductions, and Community Benefits of Electric Vehicles. With sales forecasts sky-high and battery technology getting more affordable, more and more individuals and communities are committing to vehicle electrification.

“Electric vehicles are really part of what we call the democratization of energy or ‘energy democracy’,” says John Farrell of how electric vehicles fit into the renewable energy scheme.

He continues: “Which is to say that we are seeing a transformation because of the technology of energy generation becoming localized with things like rooftop solar, where you are seeing the control of energy a localized with the way that our smartphones give us all sorts of control: whether it’s to change the color of light bulbs or schedule when our air conditioning is running.”

Here are some great reading recommendations from our guests, John Farrell and Karlee Weinmann:

Recommendation from Karlee Weinmann: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. Available from IndieBound here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385529983.

Recommendation from John Farrell: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge, The Atlantic.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Karlee, I hear you have a stat for us today.
Karlee Weinmann: Electric vehicles can save you $1000 per year in fuel and maintenance costs.
Nick Stumo-Langer: $1000, that’s a really round number I like that. Today’s guests on Building Local Power will be Karlee Weinmann who you just heard, ILSR’s researcher in our Energy Democracy initiative and John Farrell the initiative director for Energy Democracy initiative.
John Farrell & Karlee Weinmann:  Hi, Nick.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Perfect. This episode of Building Local Power we’re going to talk a lot about electric vehicles and I am kind of confused about that so why don’t we just start off by introducing the giant report that we produced in June about electric vehicles. I think you, to do some quick podcast math. We’re going to reduce 88 pages and over 100 years of history about electric vehicles into a nice little sound bitey type segment. How does that sound?
John Farrell: That sounds great, Nick. You know I think the key thing is to understand about electric vehicles is that they already are capable of serving most Americans needs at an affordable price. For example the Nissan Leaf and I’m not talking about the one that was just introduced last week, but the one that’s been sold and car dealerships for the last couple of years already had enough range in its battery to meet 83 percent of Americans daily driving needs. And so I think a lot of people have thought about electric vehicles and their battery range as being too limited and I think we really need to turn that around and let people understand that electric vehicles can get you where you need to go already. And as Karlee mentioned in the introduction it can also save you a lot of money doing that. I think those are kind of the two big top line things that people need to understand about electric vehicles.

A couple of more things though I think that are interesting to share: electric vehicles and hybrid cars have as high a customer satisfaction rating as luxury vehicles. People love these cars and people are going to continue to love them not just because they save them money because they’re fun to drive. And the last thing I think that’s important and I won’t go into too much detail here is just to say that all of the fundamental underlying technology behind electric vehicles whether it’s the drive train with a hundred times fewer parts than a gas car or the battery or some of the other technology about how these vehicles operates is subject to all of the innovation that we have been having across our economy with technology which is to say that it’s going to get cheaper and it’s going to get cheaper very quickly.

And so electric vehicles might be a marginal savings. Now for some people they’re going to be a very significant savings for folks when they’re making car purchases in the next few years. And that’s why during national drive electric week we’re seeing companies like Volkswagen say every model we’ve got is going to be electric by 2030.

Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. And that’s really I think something that not a lot of our listeners would necessarily know these these are these vehicles are already on the market. They’re already extremely popular. Do you have any kind of sense of how popular these vehicles are you know maybe any numbers about how many more are being purchased and any kinds of new models that might be coming out that people could get excited about?
John Farrell: Well I think the key thing is that you know in terms of sales every quarter in 2016 saw higher sales than any previous quarter in the history of electric vehicle sales. So we’re seeing the growth build very quickly and the forecasts are for that growth to continue to accelerate. Now that being said electric vehicles are still a very small portion of vehicles that are being sold but that’s about to change because already we have a couple of new models one coming out this year and a couple in the next year from Tesla, from Chevy, and from Nissan that all about double the range of the first generation of electric vehicles that we saw. And that’s really going to start to help people understand that these are regular vehicles that they can use to both get around town and to make short and medium range traveled that they come to expect.
Karlee Weinmann: We’re already seeing auto manufacturers making long range commitments to this technology. So we’ve seen a number of auto manufacturers committing already to phase out their gas powered models in favor of hybrid and battery models going forward in the future. So I think one thing to remember here is that this is the future and the industry has already decided on that.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. So I know a little bit about both of you and I know your fascination with the electric vehicles are not just because you love new tech and because you guys are tech geeks so I kind of want to hear a little bit about you know a lot of our other work is focused on community owned renewal energy. So community solar arrays those types of things.

How do these kind of fit in with the rest of the work that we do around renewable energy technology?

John Farrell: You know electric vehicles are really part of what we call the democratization of energy or energy democracy which is to say that we are seeing a transformation because of the technology of energy generation becoming localized with things like rooftop solar where you are seeing the control of energy a localized with the way that our smartphones give us all sorts of control whether it’s to change the color of light bulbs or schedule when our air conditioning is running. And electric vehicles do that in several different ways. One of them is that we can fuel them at home. So now instead of going to a gas station in order to fuel your car you can just plug it in every night and have a full tank, if you will, every morning. The second thing is that once we can fuel at home we can also refuel at home or recharge at home by putting solar on our own rooftop or by getting solar from a local community solar array.

So  we now have the option to not only do the refueling process at home but to generate the actual energy that goes into it at home. And that’s just a fundamental change from the long distance supply chains that we have for oil and gasoline for our fossil fuel vehicles that have had you know enormous geopolitical consequences. And now all of a sudden we can talk about literally individuals can be energy independent in a way they might not have been able to before.

That’s not going to be the case for most people because even though solar and storage you know like solar and electric vehicles are a marriage of what we like to call the “sexy electrics”. A lot of people are not going to have space on their roof for a solar array or you know may not own the rooftop, but at the same time electric vehicles by being able to schedule when we charge them. That is some people who are home during the day and can charge them during the day.

Some people could plug them in at work during the day. A lot of people be willing to charge them at night at different times. Gives us a lot more flexibility on the grid both to generate more energy locally, so to put more solar on the local grid but also just to have more flexibility in how we operate the grid. And that’s going to be very important for integrating more renewable energy as the system continues to change.

I have spoken you I have stunned you into silence, Nick. And that is a good sign.

Nick Stumo-Langer: I think we’re all just stunned by the excellent turn of phrase of sexy electrics which I know when you say people like to call that I think that was a fancy way of saying John Farrell loves to call that sexy electrics.
John Farrell: Well Nick, it’s because I have an electric car I don’t have solar yet and that means I am half sexy.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Good to know. So what are the barriers to a very pervasive electric vehicle market across America. What are the barriers that are in place you know stopping people from having solar on the rooftop that charges their electric vehicle that has an electric vehicle charging spot at their work. What does that kind of look like?
Karlee Weinmann: Well Nick I think you hit on one of the biggest barriers that we see today which is a lack of infrastructure. So, John touched earlier on the so called range anxiety people have around electric vehicles you know questioning whether the battery charge is really going to be enough to get them or where they need to go. Certainly that concern gets diminished where they can go to work and plug in and plug in overnight at home like that that comfort that people can take in knowing that wherever they’re trying to go there’s going to be kind of that safety net or that security of being able to re-up their battery is important. And I think that you know we’re certainly seeing some encouraging movement in the direction of building out massive charging infrastructure at the municipal level we’re seeing cities interested in that we’re seeing you know a Tesla perhaps the most famous EV manufacturer interested in building on its own network of Chargers nationwide.

We saw the federal government under the Obama administration set this as a priority and dedicate some significant funding to it along interstates. So I think that there is definitely a recognition that this is a key component of ensuring that Americans are embracing electric vehicles in order to capture their benefits to the greatest extent possible. But obviously today you know an easy charger is not as commonplace as a gas station. So ultimately this is going to require a sort of cultural shift in how we think about driving and what infrastructure is available and how we’re investing in that. So, you know that’s one of the significant barriers that still needs to be acknowledged and dealt with and kind of conquered.

Nick Stumo-Langer: So that’s an interesting point Karlee and I’m glad you bring up you know the Tesla charging network and maybe some other kinds of ways that workplaces could implement their own EV charging but what does the the public infrastructure for this look like. What are things that cities can do to encourage this electric vehicle infrastructure. I know that you know some some cities are investing and ensuring that their their residents can charge up wherever they go or that it’s a very accessible thing. But are there some like model policies that some city folks can consider in order to to make sure this is available for everyone.
John Farrell: Well there’s a couple of things that we can do Nick to address the issue of infrastructure. The first thing that we have to keep in mind though is that unlike some other kinds of crazy fueling stuff that we might have heard about like hydrogen or natural gas, electricity is pretty much already available everywhere. Now the issue of course is that the rate at which we can charge plugged into an ordinary outlet isn’t really enough to fuel up an electric vehicle that’s driven for a substantial distance on a day to day basis. So on the one hand for someone like myself who has a pretty short commute and a Nissan Leaf I was actually able to charge the car fully overnight many nights especially during the week when I was just going to and from work and for a lot of people that will also be possible.

What we have is a sort of two issues that we need to address. One is how do we fully charge somebody who is driving a longer distance especially as the cars that we have electric cars that we have can go further. And the second one is how do we provide charging infrastructure for people who do not have off street parking or a covered garage where they can plug in. And so for the first piece there in terms of making sure that we have the ability to charge quickly we just need higher level charges so level 1 is your traditional outlet in your home or in your garage. That’s going to add you know a few miles overnight but not a whole lot. Level 2 charger which goes at 240 volts instead of 120 volts is going to add a charge much more quickly.

Pretty much every night when I plugged in my car since I had a level 2 charger it’s been able to fully refuel in just a couple of hours two or three hours even for a Tesla that’s being driven long distances. It can generally refuel overnight on a level 2 charger.

And then we’re going to have infrastructure on the interstate highway network like Karlee mentioned that Tesla and others are putting out their high voltage chargers that can charge in a matter of minutes instead of hours. So that’s kind of the way that we deal with the fueling up quickly enough since we’re used to going to a gas station and spending you know maybe three minutes being plugged in if you will getting our fuel it’s important that folks are able to do that quickly when they need to. But for the most part simply being able to refuel overnight and to fill up their tank so to speak at home. The second thing is for those folks who don’t have a place to plug in at night time what’s happening there.

Austin is a terrific example of this in Texas. Now they’re equipped in a way that many other cities aren’t which is to say they have a municipal utility they own their own utility company and their municipal utility is out there building public infrastructure public Chargers and is giving folks unlimited access to charging for about$4 a month. So that’s a really crucial way that the city can support this notion of availability to charging putting those higher voltage chargers out there. That mean you don’t have to be parked as long in order to charge and making sure that you have low cost access to them. Everywhere in your community other cities can do the same kind of thing they can partner with utilities to do that. They can build city on chargers or work with a private provider that might delay people for charging access. You know being plugged in is usually like a dollar or two an hour at the most. And some of those level 2 chargers a good way to for folks to add a little bit more capacity at a fairly low cost. So there’s a lot of ways that that cities can do this and other what they can do.

And I’m going to like Carly tell you more about it is that cities can kind of lead by example by doing investments in their own electric vehicle fleets and to demonstrate the technology.

Nick Stumo-Langer: You did steal my next question to ask Karlee because I know she’s super excited about city fleet electrification which is a great thing to be excited about. I have two things that I want to say in response to what you just said John when you’re talking about hydrogen fuel and weird kind of fueling I’m just sad that we don’t have the garbage fueling to flying cars that I was promised in Back to the Future. And I just want to point out for our listeners he said just over $4 a month for Austin Energy to have unlimited public charging. Now that’s obviously something where they are getting people enticed with that but that is an insanely cheap amount for unlimited charging and just want to like circle that, underline it, and bold face it. That’s crazy. So Karlee fleet electrification what why should we be pumped about it?
Karlee Weinmann: So I think to John’s point cities can be kind of powerful agents of this transition in leading by example. So let’s stick with the Austin example. Austin has plans over the next 10 years to add 330 electric vehicles to its municipal fleet. So that’s a huge number and that’s something that’s going to happen naturally. So as their traditional gas powered vehicles need to be phased out or replaced they’re just switching to the battery operated models over 10 years. They expect that to save them $3.5 million in fuel and maintenance costs. So that’s hugely significant. And I think it’s always worth pointing out that whenever a city saves money it’s taxpayers save money and that’s a pretty powerful argument to make in favor of of this transition. Aside from you know the maybe more obvious or more popular arguments that this is you know a city taking climate action all of those things that a lot of cities are talking about these days particularly in places like Texas.

On that note I’d also single out the example of Houston you know a city that’s maybe the most prominent example of the American oil industry. They added 27 Leafs back in 2014 and in 2014 numbers they save $100,000 per year in fuel and maintenance costs so you know the value proposition is only getting better. And I think that these stories really illustrate the power of fleet electrification to save cities money to build capacity that way and to really reinforce commitments to electric vehicles and the fact that this technology isn’t going anywhere and it really bears out.

Nick Stumo-Langer: I think you hit on something that I’m always very impressed that you and John pull out of almost any piece of research that we do for ILSR’s energy initiative is that it’s not only about decarbonizing in different parts of what we’re doing which is really fancy way to say, you know, getting renewable technology, but you point out that for cities for individuals for communities in any kind of format this saves money for them. This is an economic choice not just some kind of highfalutin way on environmentalism. This is something that a lot of people can can see the benefits of it in their pocketbook and I think that’s really important.
John Farrell: Nick I just want to point out too since we were talking about Houston and obviously in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and then again now in Florida suffering from the after effects of Irma that you know there was a lot of news media coverage of the gasoline shortages prior to the hurricanes and then even in some cases afterwards people have tried to keep generators running in order to provide power after the storms and electric vehicles provide this really interesting role or electrification or bad or the batteries in our electric vehicles. You know I read one story in the past couple of days. It was about Hurricane Sandy actually where a facility got a battery system installed that basically helped work with the diesel generator in order to lower its fuel consumption so that the fuel stocks that they had were available for longer. And when you think about a place like the Florida Keys that has been almost completely wiped out by this hurricane and how difficult it’s going to be to both rebuild the infrastructure locally to store fuel and also to get the fuel down there because it’s already a long drive in there you know still haven’t even finished making sure that the bridges all the way through the Keys are safe to travel on when we can connect local power generation with solar and solar panels are as good as a roof.

So if your roof is still on after the hurricane your solar panels are probably still there and you’re able to combine that with something like an electric vehicle which you can put electricity into and it in and of future generations of electric cars we’re going to have the ability to take that power out as backup generation.

And when you combine those things together all of a sudden you’re talking about resiliency and the ability to spring back after these natural disasters in a way that we haven’t been able to do before. And I think this is something that people forget is that a gas generator or a gas car always has the supply chain issue that you know the supply line issue. And you know the military understands this. That’s one reason they care about renewable energy is the supply chain. I think it’s something that we’ll be thinking more and more about is these kind of large natural disasters disrupt our economy and the way that we can have more local resiliency with electric vehicles and solar power and other ways to localize our energy generation.

Nick Stumo-Langer: And it seems to me too from what you’re saying John is that we’re going to be looking to these communities that have some kind of natural barrier you know that’s some place like Hawaii where getting the fuel to the island chain is really expensive or if it’s an isolated place after a storm like and like in New England after Sandy or if in the wake of these hurricanes I think that’s a really important thing to kind of understand that you know micro-grids and how electric vehicles fit into this type of thing you know with the sun shining for rooftop solar. It seems like all big pieces of a puzzle that we’re going to be figuring out together. And I’m just kind of wondering if there are any holistic examples of communities that have kind of gone all in on this. I want to say micro-grid But this kind of resiliency model and places that maybe we can point to and say “Hey Houston while you’re rebuilding” or “hey Florida Keys while you’re rebuilding this is the place you want to take a look at.”
John Farrell: I don’t think we have any like whole cities or whole communities that are demonstration projects for how you might rebuild and build a more resilient community. I think we’re going to learn a lot of things from this process though. And we have a lesson you know for better or for worse that was delivered on the eastern seaboard a few years ago which is in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and what you saw happen there. And it’s something that we’ve written a bit about in a report called Mighty Microgrids we published about a year and a half ago was that a lot of states there looked at this notion of microgrids which is say little portions of the grid that can operate on a standalone basis when the larger grid goes down. And that’s from a combination it can be fossil fuel generators but primarily renewables like solar and battery storage which is getting incredibly cheap.

You know we didn’t talk about the actual numbers before but the cost of battery storage when it was forecast what the price would be in 2016. Back in 2013. So it was looking ahead three years. All of the leading prognosticators were off by a 50 percent difference. They thought the price would go down a little bit but not nearly as much as it has. And now we’re seeing that a further two thirds decrease is likely in the next five to 10 years.

And so we’re going to see much more opportunity to rebuild our electricity system and our grid system in a way that allows for local power to stay on. Whether that’s for you know shelters for folks who had to leave their homes during storms for hospitals for emergency services in particular. I think that’s one of the key pieces. But of course the second one is simply thinking about you know as we’re rebuilding infrastructure in general rebuilding homes and apartment buildings and office buildings how can we make sure that we’re being as good a stewards of those dollars as possible. And so whether that’s energy codes that states or cities can adopt and make sure that the buildings are as energy efficient as possible requiring those buildings to be solar ready or as some communities have done in California and in Florida requiring that solar be included when there’s a major retrofit or when there’s a new home that’s being built. So I think there are ways that we can respond to this. I don’t think any community has kind of done it all but I think we have lots of little pieces that these storm-wrecked communities could tap into.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Transitioning just a little bit kind of back into ways that cities can enact policies to have these renewable technologies. What else can our listeners you know who may be thinking OK this all sounds great. I really love this. Electric vehicles fit into the grid because I got all the ones from ILSR. But what should they be telling their city council members or their members or their state legislators to allow them to do these types of things. And are there examples of some cities that are trying to work on how to do that?
Karlee Weinmann: Well I think first and foremost what people need to be telling their elected officials is that they want this. People do as John said people love electric vehicles. People are really into clean energy. And I think that the more that that becomes you know kind of a primary priority for people it will become a primary priority for cities as well. So we talked about Austin and Houston leading by example when it comes to the electrification of their municipal fleets. But you know the onus is not on the cities here. Citizens and residents should feel empowered to voice that this is something they want as well. An interesting example of sort of what that looks like is playing out here in Minneapolis right now. So, Minneapolis is unique in that it has a first of its kind partnership between the city and the two utilities that serve it.

And that’s an outgrowth of citizen led efforts among residents and advocacy groups to explore municipalization. A few years ago the end result was not municipalization but rather this partnership that has a ton of potential to be really effective and influential in deciding that we want a more democratic, cleaner, more sustainable energy future for our selves so one piece of that that’s on the table right now that in fact Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges raised in her budget address a plan that would impose a nominal increase on the utility franchise fee assessed to all utility customers in Minneapolis that would unlock about three million dollars a year in revenue that could be reinvested then in clean energy upgrades, energy efficiency programming, and outreach that you know we really need in order to move forward. And electric vehicle infrastructure can be a part of that.

So there’s a real opportunity to kind of look at what’s already on the table and think creatively about how funds could be moved around or redistributed in a way that better reflects the priorities of residents and officials who are committed to this vision for cleaner more democratic energy future. One other thing that I think is useful to consider that has really done with me since we began exploring how states and cities can influence electric vehicle adoption is exploring incentives and programs that really reflect what is going on in specific communities. So in California for example one of the most powerful incentives that was set forth after the state decided that it wanted to dramatically increase adoption was one that would enable any driver to use the carpool lane and whenever they wanted. So obviously in California famous for its traffic a lot of congestion going on.

This is an incentive that actually proved to be really powerful studies that examined why drivers made the switch to go electric revealed that this was actually kind of a top of mind thing for a lot of people. And so I think where cities and states can be really in tune with what’s happening in their community and what might actually move the needle for people on electrification in the transportation sector I think that that’s a really powerful powerful thing to keep in mind and something that maybe doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. But I think variations of that can be implemented everywhere.

John Farrell: Nick, I think good example of this might be an incentive in Minnesota if somebody would come scrape my car off for me after a snow storm because it was an electric car. I think I would definitely be more likely to buy one.
Nick Stumo-Langer: I’ll be there for you John.  I’ll come scrape the car off.  Well that sounds great. And I think that you answered a lot of really good questions kind of about what ways cities can do things what ways citizens can kind of get involved with this type of thing. I think Karlee that was a great summation of that is that there’s not a one size fits all there is there is no specific policy that is going to solve all your problems but the citizen voice and the resident voice matters and these issues.

We’re moving on to the very last part of the show where we ask for your recommendations. Reading watching listening and anything you think is going to be of interest to our listeners this could be something to do with energy work. It also could not be because you can’t have your brain just in this. So, Karlee what is your recommendation for our listeners?

Karlee Weinmann: My recommendation Nick is a little bit outside the energy realm. This week I would recommend that everybody in America read the book “Ghetto Side” by Jill Leovy who is an L.A. Times reporter and she’s brilliant. And this book explores the epidemic of unsolved murders of African-American men in L.A. County. But it really tells a broader story of some of the you know racial social and economic disparities that persists across the country and the ways in which that manifests and in destructive ways that that hold everyone back. So I think especially as we think about equity and equality and community thinking about these ideas can be you know really really powerful and important and elevate our conversation around that. So that’s my depressing but extremely important recommendation.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s “Ghetto Side” by Jill Leovy, thank you so much Karlee. John?
John Farrell: Yeah I’m going to keep on the depressing theme with a piece that was put out in the Atlantic just earlier this week entitled have smartphones destroyed a generation. The caveat here is every time I get asked this when I’m on this show it’s always something I read in the last 24 hours because I can’t remember anything past that which is probably because I have a smartphone. The piece really goes into the issue of the generation that’s coming of age now since the broad dispersion of smartphones and and kind of the impact that it’s having on their social and emotional growth. And it’s just it’s a fascinating thing as a parent of kids who are not at that age yet and who do not have phones yet in terms of thinking about like how I will deal with this appropriately for them but also for somebody who has a smartphone and uses that a lot.

What’s the appropriate relationship between myself and my smartphone and my you know real live folks in my life. Real life relationships, so it’s really interesting. I think the headline was terribly hyperbolic and it’s you know just another way of like getting down on young people. But I think that in general it’s a really interesting way to think about how we might do things differently and what the role of adults is in putting down their phones to talk to kids and how we can teach kids to be good users of that online and off.

Nick Stumo-Langer: All right, well thank you so much the both of you for being on Building Local Power today.
John Farrell: Thanks, Nick.
Karlee Weinmann: Thank you.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And thank you to all of you for listening to this episode of building local power and to all of our episodes of building local power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our Web site ILSR.org and clicking on the show page for this podcast. That’s ILSR.org. And while you’re there you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also go to ILSR.org/donate and help us keep producing these great podcast with these great guests and these great topics — all the greats. We thank you so much for rating us on iTunes and recommending to your friends. And a final thank you for the music. It’s Funk Interlude by dysfunctionAL. Now for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m Nick Stumo-Langer, and I hope you’ll join us again for another episode of Building Local Power. Thanks everyone.


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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.