2020 Transportation Topics: Two Experts Weigh In (Text Version)

This is a text version of the podcast episode 2020 Transportation Topics: Two Experts Weigh In from Jan. 15, 2021.

Erik: I'm Erik Ringle.

Mollie: And I'm Mollie Putzig.

Erik: And today we're happy to bring you the first ever episode of On the Go, An On-Road Transportation Podcast with Clean Cities, which is your conversation on alternative fuels, advanced vehicles, and emerging transportation technologies that are transforming mobility as we know it. And here at the National Renewable Energy Lab, a team including Mollie and I have been working behind the scenes to imagine what producing a podcast on alternative fuel vehicles would look like. And we're excited to share that vision with you, our listeners.

Mollie: That's right Erik. And for our first episode we got to chat with two very special guests from the Technical Response Service, Stacy Noblet and Amy Snelling, about the latest trends in alternative fuel vehicles. But before we get into that I want to give listeners a bit of context. If you're new to this space, the Clean Cities Coalition Network is a group of nearly 100 coalitions that work in communities across the country to help decision makers and fleets advance affordable domestic transportation fuels and technologies. And those Clean Cities coalitions are coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office. In the On the Go podcast, we'll be drawing on expertise from the Vehicle Technologies Office as well as national labs like the National Renewable Energy Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, and Argonne National Lab, and our industry partners and of course the Clean Cities Coalition Network themselves.

Erik: Yeah. That's great groundwork, Mollie. So with that, let's switch over to our conversation with Stacy and Amy to hear more about their role with the Technical Response Service and just what's been trending in the world of alternative fuels. Enjoy. Kind of want to start by having you tell us a little bit about your role with the Technical Response Service, especially for listeners who don't know who you are or what you do. So let's just start there.

Stacy: Sure. Thanks Erik and Mollie for having us. This is Stacy Noblet. We are a team of experts in really kind of all things advanced transportation and with of course on on road transportation. We support a number of different efforts through the Vehicle Technologies Office. Amy and I are both with ICF, a consulting firm. And over the past 15 years, ICF as the Technical Response Service has provided Clean Cities coalitions and industry stakeholders and really the general public with information and resources that are both fuel and technology neutral. These stakeholders can count on us to provide expertise on all vehicle types, applications, the fuels, the technologies, even idle reduction and fuel economy improvements. There's also of course new mobility choices and emerging technologies that we're happy to answer questions about.

Mollie: Thanks Stacy. And yeah, I know for me personally when I am researching something and I get into any trouble, I'm having trouble finding information, I know I have the TRS to go to to help me locate that. So some of the examples I have recently were trying to find historical information about electric vehicle use and I just got stuck. Or looking at the cost of a liquified natural gas station to actually build that. I was a little bit in over my head so I could go to the TRS and get that information much more quickly because they're much more familiar with what all of that stuff is.

Erik: That's a good example.

Amy: My name is Amy Snelling and I'm on the inquiry response team. So if any one of the listeners reach out to the TRS I would be one of the responders that they would hear from. We have about five other folks that staff the TRS and beyond that core team we have our own internal network of transportation experts that we can tap for input on questions. We also have connections to DOE and national lab staff. So if we don't know the answer to a question, chances are we know someone who does and we can reach that person quickly.

And kind of as Mollie was saying the kind of challenges that people have in researching this information—with a portfolio of fuels and technology available, evaluating options, or kind of navigating the information out there—is not always easy. So that's what the TRS is here for. We are the seasoned experts that are here to help. And another key point here is that members of the TRS are also part of the team behind the AFDC station locator and laws and incentives database, which are two of the most used and asked about AFDC or Clean Cities tools, and that's by design. We have members that are involved in maintaining these databases to help us make connections between questions and data sets.

Mollie: Thanks Amy. So for any listener who is not familiar with the AFDC that's the Alternative Fuels Data Center. And it's really one of the most useful tools we have in this space. If you're looking for any information about alternative fuels, advanced vehicles, emerging technologies, it's a great place to start. It has information about all alternative fuels, from what a specific fuel is to how it's produced, how you would actually use it in a vehicle or a fleet to why you might want to use it in your vehicle or fleet. It also, as Amy mentioned, has the station locator which is this really handy tool that has all of the alternative fueling stations or charging stations throughout the United States and Canada. You can look at where all of those are. You can map your route from one side of the country to the other to see how far you could get or where you would need to go to get those fuels for your vehicles. It's just a really great resource all around.

Amy: Yeah. And for all those reasons that's why the AFDC is probably our most used resource. And beyond that we'll turn to national lab research publications from NREL. If someone is looking for information on fuel economy we can point to resources from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or fueleconomy.gov, Department of Transportation. BTS or Bureau of Transportation Statistics has some great data. There's also Argonne for vehicle costs or emission analysis, other federal agencies, EPA, energy information administration. Obviously there's all these great resources out there and the TRS is useful because we can help navigate all of them.

Erik: Yeah. It sounds like you're a really great central location where people can go and navigate all that in one place. That's a really key tool to have.

Mollie: It is. And one of the things that I think is super helpful for me understanding what's going on in the industry is that looking at the kinds of questions that the TRS gets over time helps us understand where the industry is trending and what's going on. So Stacy, Amy, since you're the experts what are the latest trends that you're seeing in alternative fuels industry based on the inquiries that come across your desk in say the last six months or a year?

Stacy: Sure. Well, certainly the last now seven months of most people's lives have been dominated by the current pandemic we're in and the impacts of COVID-19 on transportation in general is certainly a trending question and something that we field, I think fairly regularly, through the TRS and other projects. That includes impacts on vehicle miles traveled, for example, fuel prices, which are currently low, and what that, how that might play into the alternative fuel vehicle industry. Vehicle sales which are down now but seem to be recovering. Models that have been announced but their release dates have been pushed back. This is particularly of interest for electric vehicles right now as people are more interested in what's coming down the pike. And the infrastructure development, installing the fueling and charging stations, how that's been impacted. So a lot of the questions that we receive kind of have some tangent I guess related to the current pandemic.

Amy: And as Mollie said it's helpful to see what the trend of inquiries were over time. So I actually went digging through our database. And one key impact that we've seen of COVID is the increase of e-commerce. And I'm sure people have seen and noticed a surge of Amazon deliveries in their neighborhoods this year. And I tracked down what I think is our, one of our first questions about Amazon. And it was a question we fielded 12 years ago asking, "can I buy this CD-ROM from Amazon on natural gas vehicles?" And while it's not exactly a hot topic now, it's interesting to see how far we've come. As Stacy said, our questions tend to be a bit more technical now.

So more recently we're getting questions related to Amazon or delivery trucks that cover, "what is the impact of e-commerce on vehicle miles traveled and transportation energy consumption?" DOE and national labs are researching the energy impact of deliveries, exploring how do we move more efficiently, more safely, more cost effective. Is it more efficient that I have Amazon deliver dog food than if I was just to go to the store myself and pick it up?

Erik: Yes.

Amy: In this one particular example. Yeah. DOE is finding that an increase in e-commerce does lower the vehicle miles traveled and energy consumption. The added miles from a delivery truck making an extra stop at my house is less than if I was to go out myself. But there's like a lot of components to this research and lots of questions to ask in this field.

Mollie: Yeah. That's definitely something I've been thinking about a lot as most of us have been spending much more time in the home and getting a lot more things delivered. So I'm curious. What are delivery companies doing to respond to this increase in e-commerce?

Amy: So alternative fuels and smart mobility technology can improve the bottom line for fleets, which is why in part we're seeing delivery companies making investments in alternative fuels or connected vehicles. And continuing with that Amazon example, they announced a partnership with Rivian, which is an EV startup, to have 10,000 electric delivery vans on the road by 2022. And longer term that increases to 100,000 by 2030. UPS is another example. They have a long history with alternative fuels through their rolling laboratory. They've also announced commitments to purchase 10,000 electric trucks.

Other announcements for them are for 6,000 natural gas trucks over the next few years with the use of renewable natural gas to achieve even greater emissions reductions. Companies like Walmart are investing in on-road vehicles and off-road equipment for their warehouses. So they've set an ambitious goal to electrify all of their vehicles by 20 [Break in Audio] and then are increasingly using hydrogen forklifts in their warehouses. So there's a lot of development in this sphere.

Erik: Yeah. It sounds like there's a lot happening in terms of alternative fuels and e-commerce. And then also obviously surrounding COVID. But I'm curious what other trends have you seen emerge kind of beyond what's happening around the pandemic?

Stacy: So certainly electric vehicles, of all the fuels and technologies, have been probably getting the most attention for a few reasons. One of the main reasons is all of the alternative fuels have a place in transportation. Electric vehicles just happen to be a big focus for consumers at this point and for passenger vehicles. So there's a lot of focus, certainly a lot of the questions that we field are around vehicle model availability, charging station growth, the benefits, the challenges, and so on. Building out DC fast, which are the higher powered chargers, as these vehicles are increasing their all electric range. People are interested in traveling farther. And charging at home is wonderful. Charging at work certainly helps. And charging at retail locations and kind of out and about. But to move those vehicles longer distances the higher power chargers are necessary.

Not to go back to the pandemic again but these days a lot of people are taking more road trips rather than flying and certainly visiting national parks. And a lot of those parks are located in more rural areas, and the electrical supply may not be sufficient for these higher power chargers. So it's an area that's getting a lot of focus on what partnerships are needed, what technologies are needed to kind of build out this national network of EV charging stations. Some of the corridor work, so really focusing on those travel corridors. That actually links back to the freight movement topic that Amy just got into and the station locator tool on the AFDC being a great way to identify where the stations are, planning routes, looking at those alternative fuel corridors, and identifying where there might be gaps that need to be kind of addressed differently, and bringing that to the attention of policy makers and infrastructure providers to hopefully help kind of fill any gaps in travel corridors.

Erik: Yeah. It sounds like you have a really good sense of some of these interesting trends happening on the ground with transportation. And I understand you get a lot of inquiries and requests for help, helping companies navigate these trends. So I wonder if you might give our listeners a recent example of an interesting problem or question that came across your desk. What question did they have, and then what action did that individual or company or agency take because of the services you provided?

Amy: Sure. Well, one that was forwarded to us recently was a northeast utility contacted their local Clean Cities coordinator to see whether they could purchase an electric bucket truck using Volkswagen Settlement funding. For those who might not know the Volkswagen settlement. It might be more commonly known as Diesel Gate. Over several years Volkswagen sold over half a million vehicles in the U.S. equipped with defeat devices that were designed to cheat on federal emissions tests. And it made it look like the cars were meeting emission standards when they really weren't and in fact they were exceeding it by a huge amount. So the major pollutant in this case was NOx emissions. Eventually Volkswagen got caught.

Erik: Just to clarify.

Amy: Yeah. Go ahead.

Erik: Sorry. Just to clarify, NOx is nitrogen oxides just for listeners who may not know.

Amy: Yes. Great. Thank you. So then after it was found out that this was going on, the EPA issued three settlements to resolve the excess emissions. And in total, that's over $33 billion in fines, vehicle buy backs, other costs. One of the settlements requires Volkswagen to find projects to offset the NOx, excess NOx emissions. And one pot of funding is for states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and that amount of funding each state gets is based on the number of tampered with Volkswagen vehicles that were registered in that state. So now getting more into the question, the way the settlement works is that in each state a lead agency determines how they want to allocate those funds. And there's some structure to it.

There's certain eligible projects that states can fund. One of those projects is providing funding to repower or replace a class four through eight local freight truck. And the utility wanted to know, does a utility bucket truck qualify as a local freight truck, because it's certainly within that class range but it just wasn't clear if it would qualify. So they asked their Clean Cities coordinator and the coordinator knew that they could leverage their network of Clean Cities coalitions across the U.S. and see if any other states have weighed in on this question of whether bucket trucks fit into this particular funding category. And that's where the TRS came in. We helped the coalition pull together key definitions of class four through eight local freight trucks and various examples of how other states have handled this. And the coordinator then shared out input with the lead agency in their state who decided that bucket trucks would in fact be eligible knowing that the information provided helped to reinforce their decision.

Erik: Yeah. That's a really interesting example. I mean someone came in and had a specific kind of questions for you and you're able to step in and kind of do the background research to help the solve that problem. Just out of curiosity I know you get a lot of questions across your desk. Is there one or two examples of a really crazy question maybe you received recently or maybe in the past?

Stacy: I think one of our favorite kind of odd questions is from someone who asked us if we could help them design an electric vehicle that also operates as a boat so that the person could transport themselves and their cow from California to Hawaii.

Erik: So were you able to help them answer that question or how did you handle that?

Stacy: That's one of those where we probably pointed them to more general resources around electric vehicles and the range. This was actually from years ago before the current generation electric vehicles, so the industry was quite different. But I think there was probably a happy medium between referring them to factual resources and letting them kind of decide if this was a good idea or not.

Erik: Yeah. I guess if we're hearing something in the news about that, about someone making the trek with their cow across the ocean we kind of have TRS partly to thank for that maybe.

Stacy: That's right.

Erik: And then another question is, what's a question from a while back? What's one from the vaults that you got and that kind of shows how things have changed over the past few years?

Stacy: Yeah. Absolutely. Interestingly enough we'll go with this cow trend for a minute here. Back in 2011, which certainly seems like a long time in alternative fuel years since so much has happened, one of the questions we got was how many cows are needed to produce renewable natural gas. And who knew but there is actually a really great report from the Department of Agriculture that included the renewable natural gas production per cow. So we were able to answer this question, point this person to AFDC resources on renewable natural gas, and talk through kind of the process there and help educate them a little bit more about what goes into the fuel production.

Mollie: Maybe this is an opportunity to get those two together. We can go back and find the electric car cow guy and let him know how many cows he's going to need once he gets to Hawaii to start his own renewable natural gas production over there.

Erik: Exactly.

Stacy: Exactly right. So much of our job is making connections. So it's a great example.

Mollie: Just for any listeners who have thought of a question while we're on here, cow related or otherwise, how can people get in contact with the TRS?

Amy: Yeah. That's great. So our contact phone number is 800-254-6735. And then of course email is also available and that's technicalresponse@icf.com. For those who don't want to kind of quickly jot those down there's links from the Clean Cities Coalition Network website and AFDC. So yeah. Just definitely let the TRS know what questions you have for us or what other topics you want to hear about.

Erik: You heard it. Reach out to the TRS if you have questions on alternative fuels and advanced vehicles. They'd be happy to receive those questions and help you in whatever way they can. Stacy and Amy thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate you sharing your insights with us.

Stacy: Thank you. We're happy to get the word out about the TRS's fantastic resource for really anyone who has questions in this sort of world.

Mollie: Thank you both.

Erik: So Mollie. At this point in the podcast we'll generally take just a few minutes to touch on news, trends and tidbits to give listeners the lay of the land in alternative fuels. What do you have for us this time?

Mollie: So we have this really great tool on the AFDC that provides a simple way to estimate how much electric vehicle charging you might need in your area and how that's going to affect your charging load profile. That tool is called the electric vehicle infrastructure projection tool model or EVI Pro Lite for short. As electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity utilities and community planners are increasingly focused on building resilient energy systems that can support the added electric load from increased EV charging. But forecasting the best ways to adapt increased EV charging can be difficult.

So to support that effort researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab expanded EVI Pro Lite with more analytic capabilities. Previously the tool was limited to letting users estimate how many chargers and what kind of chargers their area may need to support an influx of EVs. And the added online application, those same users can take it a step farther to predict how that added EV charging will impact electricity demand or load shapes in their area at any given time.

Erik: Ok. Well, that sounds like a super useful tool. Where can folks learn more about it?

Mollie: Yeah. So if you're interested in learning more you can find a news article on the National Renewable Energy Lab website as well as a recorded webinar that really dives into how to use that tool and what those updates do. So that's it for today's podcast. I want to say a quick thanks to the US Department of Vehicle Technologies Office for the support.

Erik: Also a big thanks to Brittany Conrad, the podcast editor who brought these audio clips to life. And we want to hear from you. What topics do you want to hear about? Are there experts you think we should invite as guests to the show? Share your ideas with your local Clean Cities coalition.

Mollie: You can visit cleancities.energy.gov to find that contact information and learn much more about Clean Cities and its partnerships to advance affordable domestic transportation fuels and technologies.