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“If You Build it, They Will Come” - The Electric Car’s Field of Dreams

Aug 30 2018

 

Writing crunch time.   Claire Sugihara
 

By Michelle Solomon
PhD, Materials Science & Engineering, ‘20
Graduate Intern, California Energy Commission, Office of Commissioner Scott

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

In the race toward a sustainable future, California has recently dipped below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but those from transportation still make up 40% and are on the rise. Furthermore, the emissions from transportation disproportionately affect disadvantaged and low-income communities, which are more likely to be located near major transportation areas.

Electric vehicles have emerged as one of the best ways to ameliorate emissions, particularly as the grid continues to be powered by higher and higher proportions of renewable energy. However, range anxiety, or the fear that your electric vehicle will not have the battery capacity to get you where you need to go, is still one of the most common reasons people cite as a barrier to purchasing an electric vehicle. My role this summer has been focused on decreasing range anxiety through research into the future of the electric vehicle charging landscape in California.

My role this summer has been focused on decreasing range anxiety through research into the future of the electric vehicle charging landscape in California.

While the role of the government in this process is hotly debated, one counter-intuitive phrase has continued to ring true in my work here: regulation drives innovation. This is definitely not something I would have considered to be true before this summer, but give me a minute and I’ll give you an example. This phrase was said during a workforce development meeting, regarding the influx of electric bus manufacturing to the state, resulting in not only hundreds of clean buses, but also hundreds of jobs. In this case, the regulation has not stifled the industry, but instead galvanized it (both figuratively and literally). Since some of the largest purchasers of electric buses have been public agencies, such as the LA Metro, this has also provided an opportunity to shape the practices of these companies. For example, in order for electric bus company BYD to win a contract with the LA Metro, they signed a community benefits agreement that guaranteed fair labor practices and hiring from the local community. It has been an opportunity to give something back to the areas of the state that have suffered the most from our polluting practices.

Average miles per gallon equivalent of electric vehicles, 2018. Union of Concerned Scientists.

Average miles per gallon equivalent of electric vehicles, 2018. Union of Concerned Scientists.

It is all an exceedingly complex puzzle, but for a PhD student in engineering, it has been so rewarding to have the chance to see the technology outside of the lab.

One of my favorite aspects of the work has been the overarching picture that I have gained of entire industry, from the smaller questions like where to put an electric vehicle charger to the larger ones, like how to develop an equitable workforce in the changing economy. This is a viewpoint that is difficult to get while embedded inside of a singular stakeholder. Furthermore, though the Energy Commission does not have the same magnitude of funds as the utilities, for example, Energy Commission funding for a small project can often encourage investments by outside actors, thus multiplying our impact. When the focus is not on the bottom line, but instead on how to best affect change, you can drive the market in directions that positively impact lives, not merely gain individual benefit.

It is all an exceedingly complex puzzle, but for a PhD student in engineering, it has been so rewarding to have the chance to see the technology outside of the lab, making a difference all across the state.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

 

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