A row of electric and hybrid vehicles gather at a charging station. Credit: Bill Abbott / Flickr / Creative Commons

State regulators are praised for the proactive step, but some warn electric vehicles won’t be a panacea for transportation.

State legislators jumpstarted a major grid decarbonization initiative by greenlighting the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which kicks in July 1.

However, reining in Virginia’s next fossil fuel frontier — transportation emissions — is a more enormous, complex and far-reaching undertaking. Statewide, the sector has long outpaced electric utilities, accounting for 45% of its heat-trapping gases. 

Enter electric vehicles, hailed as a key solution to that pollution.

In March, utility regulators started a conversation about that potential by asking utilities, companies, organizations and residents to weigh in with insights about the existing development and projected growth of electric vehicles. The State Corporation Commission comment period closes today.

Specifically, commissioners want to gather perspectives on how energy storage, public charging stations and the intricacies of rate design mesh with affordability and reliability of electricity service to consumers.

Matt Stanberry is a managing director at Advanced Energy Economy who tracks vehicle electrification policy nationwide. He’s encouraged that Virginia regulators are trying to “wrap their arms” around electric vehicle technology early on, when the state’s market penetration is slightly below the 2% national average.

“It’s good to see the SCC open this docket because taking that action is one of the best practices we recommend to commissions across the country,” Stanberry said. “A couple of years ago, regulators in states across the country said, ‘Hey wait, this is a big new load center. We should step back and take a look at the whole regulatory picture.’”

Electric vehicles can be beneficial to the grid and save ratepayers money if states, utilities and regulators launch early education campaigns, Stanberry said. He recommended such efforts be modeled on energy efficiency programs for buildings.

“Most folks just lack basic information on the vehicles and optimizing benefits such as charging at off-peak times when the grid has excess capacity,” he said. “That doesn’t require new infrastructure and it drives down rates for everybody.”

In addition to consumer education, Stanberry suggested that Virginia focus on ensuring that charging infrastructure keeps pace with electric vehicle adoption, creating a rate design that maximizes benefits for all parties, and forming partnerships with a full range of fleet operators intent on electrifying their vehicles.

For instance, long-haul truckers and companies such as Amazon and UPS have giant potential to help meet goals of 3,100 megawatts of energy storage over the next 15 years laid out in the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Dominion Energy’s target is 2,700 MW and Appalachian Power’s is 400 MW.

“Fleets provide an enormous opportunity for storage,” said Harry Godfrey, the executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy. “I expect we’ll see some policy on that.”

Dominion launches charging pilot

Dominion, the state’s largest utility, is already experimenting with the potential for vehicle fleets and grid storage with its electric school bus pilot program. Last August, it invited public schools within its service territory to apply for a share of 50 e-buses.

The utility selected 16 localities — from Alexandria to Waynesboro, alphabetically — based on the value of batteries to the local grid. Bus batteries will serve as energy storage to support the integration of distributed renewable energy.

Transportation directors at those school districts statewide are figuring out how to incorporate their current allotment of e-buses into their fleets starting this autumn. 

Attempts to expand Dominion’s starter e-bus program sputtered out in March when none of several competing bills advanced in this year’s General Assembly. However, the utility and clean air advocates have vowed to revive measures with sufficient legislative appeal next year.

Also, later in March, the State Corporation Commission approved a separate smart charging infrastructure pilot program proposed by Dominion to meet goals laid out in the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act.

The pilot program Dominion plans to launch this year covers charging stations for multifamily residences, workplaces, transit stations and rideshare programs. Costs start at $22 million for the first three years and grow to $51 million over 10 years.

Beyond that pilot, Dominion spokesperson Samantha Moore said her utility will be filing comments with the commission by today’s deadline.

“Electric vehicles provide numerous benefits to our customers and the communities we serve, including fuel savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” Moore said. “We believe this proceeding will be complementary to our ongoing EV efforts. We will use data collected from these programs to design managed charging programs and other EV customer offerings.”

Separately, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with using its $93.6 million share of the Volkswagen emissions settlement to reduce air pollution in Virginia. The agency has dedicated $14 million of those mitigation dollars to a contract with Los Angeles-based EVgo Services to develop a statewide public electric vehicle charging network. That’s 15% of the total — and the maximum allowable under settlement distribution rules. 

EVs are not a silver bullet

Richmond senior attorney Trip Pollard has focused on transportation and land issues at the Southern Environmental Law Center for 23 years. He fears electric vehicles are over-hyped as the sole answer to a problem that requires broader, innovative thinking.

“They’re absolutely a critical part of the solution,” Pollard said. “The danger is that electric vehicles look like a silver bullet. And they’re not. Transportation is a very human activity that is tied into what our communities look like. It doesn’t lend itself to a technical solution.”

A crucial first step is shrinking the state’s vehicle-miles-traveled footprint. Virginians drove 234 million miles daily in 2019, a 5.4% jump from just under 222 million daily miles in 2014.

Up until 2014, that average daily mileage had been flattening or declining. The figure is expected to fall this year due to the lockdown affiliated with the coronavirus pandemic.

However, as those miles grow, that greenhouse gas pollution eats into progress made by decarbonizing the grid.

“Electric vehicles’ impact will be even greater when that demand is driven down,” Pollard said.

He compared it to homeowners investing in energy efficiency improvements before adding rooftop solar arrays. The payback is faster and the grid gains access to clean excess energy.

“To really address transportation, we have to work on multiple fronts,” he said. “Building roads through farms and forestlands destroys carbon sinks and digs that climate hole deeper.”

For starters, that includes allowing more telework, making existing communities more walkable, funding bicycle lanes and trails, and deploying congestion pricing on toll roads. It also means dedicating dollars to passenger, commuter and freight rail to reduce highway traffic, linking affordable housing with job centers, and reducing sprawl by helping communities plan for transit-oriented development.

While electric vehicle advocates tout the rapidity at which businesses promise to electrify their fleets, Pollard noted that passenger vehicles still rack up more miles and that owners of those internal-combustion cars and trucks hang on to them for at least 12 years in this uncertain economy.

“Electric vehicle adoption hasn’t happened quickly and we don’t see it happening overnight,” Pollard said. “We can’t just electrify transportation and clean up the grid and say, ‘problem solved.’”

Virginia can reap huge benefits by participating in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, Pollard said. 

In September 2018, the state became the first in the South to join an ambitious endeavor by the District of Columbia and 11 New England and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce the transportation sector’s carbon emissions, while developing a clean economy. It is directed by state and district agencies within its 13 jurisdictions.

Commission docket will launch policy

While it’s not clear exactly what the State Corporation Commission will do with the input it gathers for the docket, all parties seem pleased that commissioners are educating themselves about what is evolving into a big policy issue.

“Typically, the commission is much more reactive to Dominion or Appalachian Power proposals,” Pollard said. In this case, “my guess is they decided they better be gathering information about it because they are going to be called on to make decisions about it.”

Stakeholders also expect the General Assembly to weigh in on electric vehicle policy. Legislators’ more expansive policy ideas could well clash with the commission, a body tasked with protecting ratepayers by maintaining grid reliability and affordability.

“To reduce emissions, there’s a reason Virginia tackled the grid first,” Pollard said. “Transportation is trickier.” 

Beyond investing millions of dollars, the state will have to address equity issues. For instance, rural areas have been left behind because charging infrastructure and other resources are usually concentrated in populous urban corridors.

“You are going to miss some of the policy possibilities if you have politicians say they should [offer some incentives] for electric vehicles and call it a day,” Pollard said about the shortcomings of a narrow approach. “That will have people asking, ‘Why are we spending all of this money on rail?’”

Godfrey, head of the state’s Advanced Energy Economy, is eager for Virginia to dig in.  

“We’re still in the early days,” he said. “I suspect this docket will open up more dockets and there will be plenty of time to delve into details.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" will be published by Bancroft Press in September 2020.