Electric Vehicle Tsunami Heralds the Future in America’s Counties

Electric Vehicle Tsunami Heralds the Future in America’s Counties

This piece was originally published in the March 2018 issue of electroindustry.

John Horsley, Past President, National Association of Counties

Counties invest more than $122 billion annually in transportation and other infrastructure. Like their counterparts in federal, state, and city governments, county budgets are being squeezed. But funding is not the only challenge counties face.

The National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Transportation & Infrastructure initiative delves into how changes in technology will force county leaders to fashion answers to questions they’ve never even had to think about.

Technology-Driven Transformation

Electronic toll collection is one example of how technology is changing transportation. It enables drivers to pay without stopping at tollbooths. Another is changeable message signs that tell travelers when the next bus or train will arrive. Navigation systems provide turn-by-turn directions through satellite technology, and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft make it easier for millions of Americans to get where they want to go.

On the five-year horizon are automated and connected vehicle technologies. Self-driving cars and trucks will transform how Americans and our goods travel. Connected vehicle technologies will minimize vehicle crashes and reduce congestion. County decision-makers need to understand what these technologies are capable of and how those capabilities can best be realized.

The challenge of electrification is similar to these. To start with, “electrification” is an issue that most county leaders have never heard of. But if it were rephrased as “U.S. energy efficiency will improve when we generate electricity using solar and wind rather than by burning coal, oil, and natural gas,” then they might understand. If you added “by 2030, electric vehicles (EVs) may capture 50 percent of the new car market, and this will further reduce burning of fossil fuels,” then a conversation may begin.

Through its Transportation & Infrastructure initiative, NACo has used peer exchanges of county leaders, webinars, articles in County News,[1] and technical sessions at NACo conferences to give county leaders a better understanding of automated vehicles, regional freight planning, and road safety. The next step for NACo is to help its members understand the transition to electricity generated by renewable energy and the transition to EVs.

Energy Revolution Underway

Between 2009 and 2015, wind energy generation tripled, with 500 manufacturers in 43 states now supplying the wind industry. During that same period, solar energy increased twentyfold, and the cost of solar energy dropped by 70 percent. Today, there are four million Americans employed in renewable energy. In 2017, solar jobs were growing 17 times as fast as the U.S. economy. The fastest growing job that year was wind turbine technician.

California and New York have set goals to have 50 percent of their electricity produced from renewable sources by 2030. States from Maryland to Maine have agreed to a strategic electrification plan that calls for powering end uses like transportation with electricity instead of fossil fuels in a way that increases energy efficiency and reduces pollution, while lowering costs to consumers.

The fleet of electric vehicles in America has grown to 700,000, and the number of EV charging stations has increased to 16,000. Forty-five states have EV incentive programs. California’s goal is to have 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on its roads by 2025; New York and seven other Northeast states have a goal of 3.3 million by 2025. But while important policy and funding support for EV fleet expansion has come from the federal and state levels, the delivery of these programs has taken place in counties and cities.

County Leadership

NACo had to look no further for examples of county leadership on these issues than to its own executive officers.

In 2015, NACo Past President Riki Hokama of Maui County, Hawaii, described the JUMPSmartMaui Program as a partnership of Maui County and the state of Hawaii funded by a $30 million grant from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Development Organization. The partnership’s purpose is to identify how to build a smarter, more efficient electrical system that uses renewable energies such as wind, solar, wave, and geothermal and support expanded use of EVs.

In May 2017, NACo President-Elect Greg Cox, a supervisor in San Diego County, learned that his county had received a NACo Achievement Award for its EV program. San Diego has 7,000 plug-in EVs on its roads and has 455 public charging stations. This region has adopted the San Diego Regional Plug-in Electric Vehicle Readiness Plan and modified the county’s building code to be solar and EV ready. ChargePoint, a manufacturer of electric vehicle supply equipment, announced a program to pay for free EV charging stations in San Diego apartment buildings. To encourage consumers to purchase EVs, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) announced a program that could boost incentives for an EV purchase to $20,000: $10,000 from SDG&E, $2,500 from the state, and $7,500 in federal tax credits.

There is little consensus among county officials on whether to generate electricity using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels or whether to support expanded use of EVs. Many counties are expanding the availability of charging stations so those who buy EVs have a place to plug in. Some do it to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even more do it because it is a service that their citizens need and they believe their county is the best agency available to meet that need.

Driven by Industry, Not Government

One transformation that became apparent in 2017 is that expanded use of EVs is happening faster than expected. This change will be driven by the global auto industry rather than by the U.S. government. Volvo has announced that beginning in 2019, all of the new models it produces will be electric or hybrid. Norway will end the sale of gas and diesel vehicles by 2025, Germany in 2030, the Netherlands in 2035, and the UK and France by 2040. China is pushing plug-in vehicles because it is struggling with catastrophic pollution levels in its major cities.

To remain competitive in the global marketplace, U.S. automobile manufacturers are going electric. General Motors’s goal is to produce 20 all-electric models by 2023. Ford will invest $4.5 billion in EVs by 2020. Toyota and Mazda will jointly develop electric vehicle technologies and build a $1.6 billion assembly plant that can produce 300,000 EVs annually. Volkswagen plans to have hybrid or electric versions of all of its models by 2030. Toyota’s goal is to produce all zero-emissions vehicles by 2050.

Elected county leaders need to understand the changes coming their way through electrification. A tsunami in EVs will require a massive increase in charging stations. Counties and cities must figure out how to make this happen. NACo looks forward to working with the electroindustry to educate county leaders all over the country on the changes coming their way.

For more information, visit www.naco.org/topics/transportation-infrastructure.

[1] County News, the official publication of the National Association of Counties, publishes news and ideas from Washington, D.C., and local county governments


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