Electrifying Transportation: A Starter's Guide ⚡🚃🔌

Breaking down the state of transportation electrification today

Marcia Griffith once sang, 'it's electric, boogie woogie woogie.' She might have been onto something. As we enter the 'Electrify Everything' era, the future is unmistakably electric, and the transportation sector is no exception. Welcome to Fostering Our Earth. Today, we will be exploring transportation electrification.

The Gist

In our sustainable future, transportation will be electrified. This means that vehicles will be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels. Currently, the transportation sector in the US is responsible for about 28% of our total emissions. Of this, more than half (58%) comes from passenger cars, while the remaining 42% comes from other transportation such as heavy-duty trucks, planes, ships, and trains. Each of these modes serves its purpose and is electrifying at its own rate. 

The benefits of transportation electrification are evident: it reduces emissions, improves air quality, and creates jobs. However, this transition is not without its challenges, such as the need to upgrade infrastructure or the high cost of batteries.

While electrification is crucial, it’s important that we view it as a means on our journey to a more sustainable future, not an end itself. From a systemic view, our current transportation problems go beyond just relying on internal combustion engines (ICE); they also include their contribution to traffic congestion, injuries and fatalities, high costs, and limited accessibility to everyone. We need continual investment in active infrastructure and public transport while making common sense improvements to road design and vehicle size.

We can break transport electrification into a few components: the vehicles themselves, the surrounding infrastructure, and the socio-political-economic barriers. Below, I’ll provide a high-level introduction to each of these at these scales.

What are the different types of transportation electrifying?

Light-duty vehicles (personal vehicles)

The most common type of electric vehicle are personal vehicles – from battery electric vehicles (BEVs, think Teslas) to plug-in hybrids (PHEV, think Priuses). According to the EPA, personal vehicles are responsible for about 58% of transportation emissions, so it makes sense to electrify them. Electric vehicles are continually growing in market share, with 65% more sales in 2022. Despite this, about 94% of vehicles sold in the US were ICE vehicles. According to Project Drawdown, if electric car mileage reaches 33% of total passenger miles traveled, it would reduce GHG output by ten gigatons (this is a lot) and save $16 trillion in fuel costs by 2050 (this is also a lot!). These potential savings could be redistributed among consumers, drivers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), governments, and electric utilities, which can lead to massive improvements across other facets of our mobility systems.

Medium and heavy-duty vehicles

Medium and heavy-duty vehicles, such as commercial trucks, buses, and delivery vans, currently account for about 25% of all transportation emissions, even though they are only about 10% of vehicles on the road. These vehicles are gradually being electrified, with several commercial truck manufacturers now offering electric models and companies like Amazon electrifying their delivery fleets

Fleet vehicles are especially ideal for electrification for their resilience benefits. For example, electric school buses would improve children's air quality and could also be combined with V2G/V2B systems to effectively act as “batteries on wheels.” This means in case of emergencies, these buses could provide additional power supply! WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative“ is one such project aiming to electrify the entire fleet of U.S. school buses by 2030.” 

Planes and rail

The remaining 17% of transportation emissions come from aviation, pipelines, rail, and water transport (including ships and boats). While some manufacturers are attempting to electrify planes, it may be a while before these become mainstream. The current focus is on improving efficiency by improving their design to reduce their carbon intensity.

The slice of the pie to focus on here is rail electrification. While countries like India (85%), China (72%), and others in Europe (60%) are scaling electrification efforts, rail infrastructure in the US lags, with only 1% of rail being electrified. (% indicates the electrified proportion of rail in that country/area). This is primarily because the US railways are privatized. Most US locomotives rely on diesel-electric trains because two sets of regional duopolies that own the rail networks are unwilling to invest in electrification. Instead, they prioritize cutting costs and services to rake in higher profits. Solutions to this include nationalizing rail infrastructure to spark electrification efforts. (Note from Awoe – this is actually a very interesting space to watch, so check this article to continue your perusal if you’re curious!)

Besides vehicles, what else do we need to electrify transportation sustainably?

The transition to electric vehicles is a complex process that requires the support of physical and political infrastructure. Here is a brief summary of what it takes to make this transition possible. 

Transition to clean electricity sources

All EVs will need to be charged, most likely from the grid. While they’re efficient and produce less emissions than ICE vehicles, these emissions are not zero if they are being charged from a polluting electricity grid. Electrified transport, as efficient as it is, is only as clean as the grid that powers it. Looking at vehicle emissions from a lifecycle perspective can give us a better sense of their actual emissions savings. Therefore, it is crucial that we simultaneously transition our energy sources to renewable energy to clean our grid. 

Developing new electrified norms

Transitioning to EVs will require all of us to adopt newer habits. Many folks with personal EVs have range anxiety and would like a robust charging network to charge their vehicles reliably on longer trips. Companies with commercial vehicles will need to incorporate charging patterns into their logistics as they build out routes for their fleets. Power companies must also keep improving our grid’s capacity and manage this transition to ensure we don’t end up with power outages due to everyone charging simultaneously. Furthermore, utility companies also need to adapt rate structures, which dictate the cost and use of electricity at different times of the day. Finally, our governments must pass more policies that ban gas car sales after certain dates and develop more rebate programs to make EVs more affordable. 

Practicing equitable EV production

EVs run on batteries, which are made from various minerals and chemicals. Mining these raw materials can be an extractive process that harms the environment and communities. Environmentally, the increased demand for batteries has driven the demand for critical materials. In 2022, lithium demand exceeded supply despite a 180% increase in production since 2017. From a human rights perspective, the mining of cobalt, a key component of lithium-ion batteries, has been directly linked to child labor and human rights abuses. Our transition must account for sustainability, equity, and resilience throughout the supply chain.

And so what?

You might be wondering what to do with all this information and what it might mean for you. First, it’s important to understand that the transition to an electrified transport system is complex, from car manufacturers ramping up EV production to consumers (you) embracing new habits that come with electrified transport. Second, it's important to remember that an electrified system only changes how our technology is powered – we also need to invest in systemic changes to our mobility. This means more active transportation, shared mobility options, and public transit. Finally, keep engaging with these topics. Keep asking what a better mobility system can look like. Keep demanding more sustainable practices from EV manufacturers. And finally, keep the conversation going – with your friends, neighbors, and coworkers. 

I know this was quite a long newsletter, but you made it through! What are your thoughts? Special thanks to Zach Epstein for supporting with this edition!

Don’t forget to listen to the latest podcast episode on “The Fight for Affordable Housing” and follow Fostering Our Earth on Instagram!

Boogie and woogie-ing, 

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