4 april 2021

Pandemic accelerating shift toward electric vehicles

Photo of Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
, lApril 4, 2021

The U.S. transportation system could go through a major overhaul as the country comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and a pair of studies, all released last week, point to a major shift over the next 10 to 15 years to electric vehicles from those that use gasoline or diesel for fuel. Trends already were heading that way, and the need to rebuild the economy is expected to provide the financial push to expand the infrastructure needed to support more electric vehicles.

Part of Mr. Biden’s $2 trillion proposal, which he released Wednesday in Pittsburgh, calls for spending $174 billion to bolster the use of electric vehicles through investments in a number of areas. That includes adding 500,000 charging stations, switching all school buses to electric power, and replacing 50,000 diesel transit buses with electric vehicles.

Now, there are about 100,000 stations where electric vehicles can be plugged in to recharge, more than 30,000 of them in California. Mr. Biden’s approach would offer grant and incentive programs for state and local governments and the private sector to build charging stations.
President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, right, meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the House of Representatives in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on infrastructure on March 4.

Pennsylvania has about 550, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group estimates the state would need more than 8,000 stations if 8% of the cars and trucks in the state used electricity.

The president’s proposals came directly on the heels of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reviewing fuel efficiency that estimated a major changeover to electric vehicles by 2035. At the same time, the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group called for more electric vehicles for environmental benefits.

The National Academies study concluded that zero-emission vehicles such as electric vehicles “could bring the most fundamental transformation in the 100-plus-year history of the automobile,” said Gary Marchant, Regents Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Science, and Innovation at Arizona State University. He chaired the 16-member committee — which included Kate Lightfoot, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University — that wrote the 457-page report.

Mr. Marchant said at a media briefing last week that it is “a feasible goal” for the U.S. to shift to more than 50% electric vehicles by 2035. Those vehicles have about 2% of the market now.

The keys are to improve the distance an electric vehicle can travel on a single charge, increase the number of charging stations, and bring the price closer to that of vehicles with internal combustion engines, Mr. Marchant and other committee members said. The average is about 150 miles now with goals of 200 by 2025 and 300 by 2030 through improvements in batteries.

Prices should become competitive in the next few years, the committee said.

“Consumers are reluctant to make that kind of change,” Mr. Marchant said. “Once they do, we think they will be excited about how [electric vehicles] perform.”

The report also said there should be some growth in vehicles that are powered by fuel cells or hydrogen, but they will lag substantially behind electric vehicles.

As far as transit buses are concerned, the American Public Transit Association reports that fewer than 600 of the estimated 73,000 vehicles in use now are electric. The rest are diesel or hybrid.

Mr. Biden’s plan to assist agencies in replacing 50,000 of those would involve helping to purchase them and providing stations to keep them charged. Buying and operating electric buses generally costs twice as much as diesel buses, but electric ones last longer, cost less to maintain and produce almost no pollution.

In the Pittsburgh area, Port Authority currently operates two electric buses and uses a charging station provided by Duquesne Light Co. It ordered six more last summer and plans to add another 15 to its fleet when it completes the Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland in 2023.

Mr. Biden’s program also would replace 20% of the nation’s 480,000 school buses through a new Clean Buses for Kids Program at the Environmental Protection Agency. It also would electrify the federal fleet of vehicles, including those used by the U.S. Postal Service.

Those plans fit perfectly with PennPIRG’s call to switch transit and other vehicles to electricity to reduce pollution through it’s 52-page report “Transform Transportation, Strategies for a Healthy Future.” The report said air pollution is “wrecking our health” and called for the replacement of school and transit buses with electric vehicles by 2030 and requiring all light-duty trucks and vehicles sold after 2035 to be electric.

California has passed a law forbidding the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles there beginning in 2035.

“We want to see replacing diesel buses with electric buses. We want to see more investment in clean buses,” said Emma Horst-Martz, an advocate with PennPIRG.

Dr. Walter Tsou, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted during the PennPIRG news conference that one major manufacturer, General Motors, has vowed to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

“The world is moving toward electric vehicles,” he said. “It behooves us to help develop the infrastructure. It’s going to be the right thing to do for lots of reasons.”

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