As Goals Are Reached, Clean Energy Sector Looks to Transit

As the clean energy industry continues to make substantial progress in reducing carbon from the generation of electricity, and consumption in homes, warehouses, and other  buildings, the industry, public officials and other leaders are renewing focus on now a sector ripe with opportunity to reduce carbon emissions: transportation.

In our latest Emerging Trends Series, “The Road to Our Clean Transportation Future”, NECEC convened policymakers, business leaders and city officials to discuss potential business plans, financing models and strategic collaboration. The panel discussion, held at the Boston CIC on September 26 featured a riveting discussion with Marion Gold, Commissioner, Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission; Mary Sotos, Deputy Commissioner for Energy, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; Sophie Shulman, Manager, Charging Infrastructure Partnerships, Electrify America; Tim Kreukniet, Vice President of Business Development, EV-Box; & Anne Smart, Vice President of Public Policy, ChargePoint.

A regular refrain throughout the panel was the concept of collaboration. This includes collaboration between the many charging station providers and infrastructure companies vying for a piece of the market, but also between the states as well.

“Many of the miles driven in our state are people driving through,” said Mary Sotos, Deputy Commissioner for Energy at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “If there aren’t other states participating, we don’t have as much of an incentive to invest in a program.”

When asked if money would solve the problem alone, Sotos noted “With gas revenue down, the gas tax can’t be relied on to fund the program. There needs to be some source of revenue, and that will likely a fee or charge for the service.”

Commissioner Marion Gold of the Rhode Island Public Utility Commission echoed the sentiment saying that “any program needs to meet the cost test. When you’re proposing a program to the taxpayers, it’s easy to count costs, it’s harder to quantify benefits.”

Beyond the demand for identifying financing mechanisms to spur adoption of clean transportation options and build the infrastructure, the practical need for charging stations is another area where collaboration is required. “Despite a two billion dollars investment, we’ll only meet 10% to 15% of the demand by 2020,” said Sophie Shulman, Manager of Charging Infrastructure Partnerships for Electrify America. Commissioner Gold made a similar call for a larger effort “Utility investment alone won’t get us over the ‘valley of death,’ we need to find a way to get private capital involved.”

Panelists agreed that the question of who currently pays for an electric vehicle to charge isn’t easily answered. And when private businesses are hosting a station, the costs can increase dramatically. “Owners have threatened to turn off stations because of the rates costing the business,” said Anne Smart, ChargePoint’s Vice President of Public Policy. Pivoting on that statement, moderator Alistair Pim, NECEC’s Vice President of Innovation & Partnerships asked: “If everyone charges at the office and at home, why bother with community charging stations in the first place?”

“People need to see them,” said Tim Kreukniet, Vice President of Business Development at EV-Box. “Seventy-five percent of the current Tesla owners have said they wouldn’t have purchased a Tesla if they weren’t aware of the charging station network.” Responding to the same question, Shulman said “Owners know the stations exist at work, and that they can charge at home. We need to reach a new audience.” But the issues of visibility go beyond potential customers.

While the challenges of financing and infrastructure are clear, consumer demand for low carbon transportation (2016 saw a 37% increase in electric vehicle sales) is growing. Combined with  states mandates  to meet climate reduction goals and many foreign markets banning petrol cars, the market presents an opportunity to drive the Northeast towards a clean energy-based transportation sector that can benefit our economy and environment.

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Brennan Molina

Brennan is NECEC's Membership Manager.