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Electric Report

As More Fleets Electrify, Standing on the Sidelines Not an Option for Utilities

By Paul Stith, Maryline Daviaud Lewett and Drew Thompson

As electrification of fleets emerges as the next frontier in the EV market, Joe Halso — legal counsel for the environmental advocate Sierra Club — lauded Minnesota regulators and electric utility giant Xcel Energy for refusing to stay on the sidelines.

Earlier this year, the Energy News Network reported, the state’s regulators signed off on a nearly $25-million EV pilot program from Xcel Energy that devoted $14.4 million toward infrastructure for electrifying government transportation fleets. The remaining $9.2 million will create nearly six dozen “community mobility hubs” with EV chargers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Calling the Xcel program the Midwest’s biggest — and arriving on the heel of pilots approved in Michigan and Ohio — Halso said more than $1 billion in utility EV spending has been approved nationally, while another $1 billion in investment sits before regulators.

“When people ask where the new programs are being proposed, I say there is hardly a state where utilities are not looking at this," Halso said. "That speaks to the natural role of utilities in addressing transportation electrification.”

That’s without dispute, and there’s only upside for them to do it.

Fleet and sustainability managers across the country are going greener with EV programs targeting cars, transit and school buses, as well as the expanding applications of light-, medium- and heavy-duty trucks rapidly under development. These incentives help owners capture savings, provide better working conditions for drivers and abide by increasingly stringent emissions standards.

Electric buses are at their tipping point now along with urban sprinter-style vans, with electric trucks expected to get there in 2021 for many applications based on duty cycles. For managers and electric utilities, the time has come to plan for high-powered charging locations, learn about the charging technologies, review site requirements and determine charging loads. This is a high priority because it can take years to plan for and deliver power needed to keep the fleets’ wheels rolling and move the commercial EV market from niche to mainstream.

Utilities Engaging with Transit Agencies

As a gauge of utility awareness of tomorrow’s needs, Black & Veatch’s survey of nearly 900 electric industry stakeholders found that more than half of the respondents already are very engaged with their local transit agencies about electrification. Nearly one-quarter said they’re just starting to have such talks, while 12 percent expect to begin.

Utility with transit agencies

Twelve percent are choosing to do nothing right now, running the risk of experiencing “the air conditioner effect.” As window air conditioning use became widespread a half century ago, utilities experienced demand spikes as people arrived home and flipped on their window air conditioning units, taxing the grid and causing brownouts. With the push to electrify fleets — and the wider adoption of EVs in general — utilities can learn from the past, be proactive and engage with fleet managers to understand, prioritize and fund requisite grid upgrades to support the growing number of economics-driven use cases and “all-in” charging facilities.

Without preparation, utilities could be caught flat-footed when fleets are ready to transition and their grids are not sufficiently powered up. Large fleets with multiple locations will factor in utility readiness when choosing facilities to electrify across their portfolio of sites. Smaller operators with a regional presence could have their entire electrification program put on hold without sufficient power and utility program support.

Under new rules passed in December 2018 by the regulatory California Air Resources Board, transit agencies across that state will be barred from buying any new buses powered by diesel fuel or natural gas starting in 2029, will all buses to be zero-emissions by 2040. California also passed a separate standard meant to transition airport shuttle buses to emissions-free by 2035.

Many other transit districts elsewhere have similar goals, and school districts are electrifying their buses to capture total cost of operation savings and promote emissions-free transportation to reduce air pollution.

Warning Signs: Growth in EV Adoption Causes Utilities to Take Heed

For over-the-road trucking, the EV adoption rate has been markedly slower than it is in the world of buses. This isn’t surprising, given the relative shortage of the large charging infrastructure required for big rigs and that just a handful of electric or hybrid heavy-duty truck OEMs options exist.

But on the West Coast, where national environmental reform often starts, there’s a push to make electrified big rigs a more attractive alternative to polluting diesel trucks. A coalition of California, Oregon and Washington electric utilities is exploring — and in some regions, already has begun identifying potential sites for — a potential network of charging stations and hydrogen fueling for big rigs along the 1,300-mile Interstate 5 corridor. Along the way, this corridor may

create a growth opportunity for the grid. The study phase for the “West Coast Clean Transit Corridor Initiative” is expected to be finished by the end of 2019, with implementation of recommendations coming as soon as next year along the main north-south artery stretching from Canada to Mexico.

Such an ambitious project for that region isn’t surprising, given the prevailing progressiveness of its economic policy. When surveyed about how they’re preparing for EV fleet conversion, utilities most often cited they were planning for infrastructure upgrades. And which region is most proactive? The West, at 48 percent.

A key driver is the lawmakers and local politicians pushing the “clean air” issue. Having been introduced in Congress, the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act — part of the Green New Deal resolution to eradicate fossil fuels from the U.S. economy — would eliminate the sale of gas-powered passenger cars across the country by 2040. Closer to home, cities large and small are leading where state and federal policymakers leave off or are slower to act. The groundswell around renewables is getting paired with the decarbonation of transport, and utilities need to find ways to jump on both trains at the same time.

Nearly two years since it launched an effort to get at least 100 companies to commit to electrified fleets, The Climate Group environmental advocacy campaign reported in February 2019 that 31 major companies with a combined revenue of more than a half-trillion dollars have joined “EV100” to champion the push to retire vehicles powered by fossil fuels. As part of its push to make EVs “the new normal” by 2030, The Climate Group envisions the electrification of two million vehicles by 2020.

“Despite identifying barriers such as the lack of available vehicles and charging, these companies are switching at speed, sending a clear demand signal to the marketplace,” Helen Clarkson, The Climate Group’s chief executive, wrote in the report that recognized “different solutions work for different companies.” “With costs (of electrified vehicles) falling fast and air pollution at crisis levels, now is the time for every major company to step up and ready themselves for an electric future.”

Addressing the Shortage of EVs, Lack of Charging Options

A survey last October of fleet executives by Fleet Advantage — self-described as a leading innovator in truck fleet business analytics, equipment financing, and lifecycle cost management — showed that one-fifth of respondents said they believe electric or hydrogen fuel-cell trucks never will be widely used for over-the-road operations.

Their chief reasons: Nearly four of every 10 respondents said they won’t consider the technology because of limited fueling or charging station infrastructure, while one-third have concerns over the vehicle’s range or fuel economy.

According to the Black & Veatch survey for this report, utilities appear to overwhelmingly value the upside of electrified fleets, rather than seeing them as a concern. More than half of respondents called the potential conversion either a big or good opportunity to capture new load and revenue while carrying new infrastructure costs or a mix of new load opportunities and concerns, which reflects reservations and uncertainty, perhaps including about whether the investment costs will exceed the benefits.

Fleet Conversion

Concerns or not, the electric industry anticipates that EV fleet chargers and hydrogen stations will be needed everywhere. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s respondents anticipate that multiple chargers in central locations will be common for commercial vehicles such as delivery trucks and buses. One-quarter said the chargers would be most prevalent near office buildings to charge 'personal' EVs during daytime hours. Seventeen percent cited distributed chargers for commercial fleets that include delivery trucks and buses, with 14 percent pointing to multiple, centralized chargers installed for ride-share operators and taxis.

While EVs now account for just a scant percentage of vehicles on America’s roads, The Climate Group suspects that will change dramatically in coming decades. EVs are expected to reach price parity — without subsidies — with traditional combustion engine vehicles by 2024, notable thanks to plunging costs of EV batteries and more options for hydrogen infrastructure equipment.

The takeaway: Leading fleet and sustainability managers, partnering with utilities, are taking stock of their existing facilities and available power capacity to get ahead of electrification, which is gaining speed. As managers plan their transition to electric fleets, it’s best to envision their fleet two to eight years into

the future and anticipate power capacity needs on an overall, facility-by-facility basis. It’s more cost-effective to plan and install anticipated infrastructure during initial construction rather than down the road, which would result in costly rework construction.

Electrification is about getting in gear — now. Utilities upbeat about the prospect of proliferating electrified fleets should be nimble and adaptive in scaling rapidly and mobilizing the capital and engineering for grid improvements as the market takes off. Planning and patience will be crucial – getting easements and rights of way, for instance, takes time, as does getting the signoffs from regulators and local governing bodies and boards of municipal utilities or co-ops. Costs will be required to be factored into the capital planning cycle.

The playbook is simple: Start now to stay in the game.

Paul Stith is director of strategy and innovation for  Black & Veatch’s Transformative Technologies business. He specializes in leading-edge, sustainable transportation and distributed clean energy solutions. Stith works with vehicle original equipment manufacturers, utilities, transit agencies, cities and emerging transportation service providers globally to plan and build infrastructure for electrification and automation of light, medium and heavy-duty vehicle fleets, as well as aviation, marine and ground fleets. Stith speaks regularly at national and international conferences and leads Transformative Technologies’ participation in industry alliances and standards working groups.

Maryline Daviaud Lewett leads sales and partnerships in distributed infrastructure and sustainable transportation for Black & Veatch's Transformative Technologies business. The group has extensive experience in design and engineering, procurement and construction of electric vehicle charging infrastructure networks, fuel cell vehicle filling station networks, and behind-the-meter energy storage. Daviaud Lewett has more than 20 years in the clean tech, life sciences and software industries. Her previous experience includes management positions in the electric vehicles division of Schneider Electric, Akamai Technologies and TechSoup Global.

Drew Thompson is the director of solutions for  Black & Veatch’s Data Center/Mission Critical business. Thompson has worked with many Black & Veatch business units to deliver a variety of projects, including the Missouri Hyperloop feasibility study, facility modifications to allow transit providers to convert their diesel bus fleet to fully electric buses, the facility strategy and requirements for development of a 100-electric-vehicle-fleet depot, a study of infrastructure requirements for future electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) for NASA, and design reviews for indoor agriculture clients to evolve from concept to commercialization, as well as a variety of data center related projects. He has more than 25 years of experience in client management, facility design, project management and real estate portfolio management.

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