FEATURE

Accelerating on the Road to Electrification

The movement to reduce carbon emissions is giving a speed boost to efforts to electrify transportation. Building the appropriate electrical infrastructure to support this dramatic transition will depend on understanding the reality of new operational models.


When Kyle Pynn looks at the core challenges to widespread adoption of electric vehicles, he detects what might seem like a dichotomy:

  • Will consumers buy EVs at large scale before the electrical infrastructure to support those vehicles is fully in place?
  • Will electric utilities invest and build that infrastructure before EV adoption hits critical mass?

These questions seem like a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. But Pynn, director of transportation electrification at Burns & McDonnell, thinks the answer need not be so clear-cut: “It’s really more like a chicken omelet. It’s all of the above right now.”

With interest and pressure for movement toward a net zero economy at an all-time high, it’s time to stir the ingredients. Electrification is widely seen as a key step toward realizing the transition to carbon reduction. Transportation electrification — that is, widespread adoption of EVs, largely supplanting the internal combustion engine vehicles that account for 29% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions — will be critical and will extend beyond individual passenger vehicles, into public and private fleets.

But achieving that objective will be more complicated than merely replacing vehicles; sufficient infrastructure to support those vehicles will be needed to reach the destination. Additional funding is on its way from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in late 2021, and clean energy commitments are driving many developments. The key is for industries to begin proactively planning now for the cascading changes and to start investing in the infrastructure needed to support them.

 

Read The Article

When Kyle Pynn looks at the core challenges to widespread adoption of electric vehicles, he detects what might seem like a dichotomy:

  • Will consumers buy EVs at large scale before the electrical infrastructure to support those vehicles is fully in place?
  • Will electric utilities invest and build that infrastructure before EV adoption hits critical mass?

These questions seem like a classic chicken-or-egg scenario. But Pynn, director of transportation electrification at Burns & McDonnell, thinks the answer need not be so clear-cut: “It’s really more like a chicken omelet. It’s all of the above right now.”

With interest and pressure for movement toward a net zero economy at an all-time high, it’s time to stir the ingredients. Electrification is widely seen as a key step toward realizing the transition to carbon reduction. Transportation electrification — that is, widespread adoption of EVs, largely supplanting the internal combustion engine vehicles that account for 29% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions — will be critical and will extend beyond individual passenger vehicles, into public and private fleets.

But achieving that objective will be more complicated than merely replacing vehicles; sufficient infrastructure to support those vehicles will be needed to reach the destination. Additional funding is on its way from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in late 2021, and clean energy commitments are driving many developments. The key is for industries to begin proactively planning now for the cascading changes and to start investing in the infrastructure needed to support them.

Charging Ahead With Electric Utilities

Electric utilities find themselves on both sides of the electrification fence. On one side, they are expected to build the vast expansion of capacity that will be needed as more vehicles depend on electric charging. On the other side, utilities are beginning to explore electrification of their own fleets of vehicles.

Why should utilities build out the infrastructure to support charging capacity before the demand has surged? Pynn sees justification in leading indicators: “You have auto manufacturers like Volvo committing to stop producing vehicles with internal combustion engines. You have France and Britain saying that by 2030, they will no longer allow the sale of internal combustion engines in their countries. You have Ford heavily investing in producing an electric version of the F-150, its flagship vehicle.”

Public charging infrastructure is in line for $7.5 billion from the 2021 infrastructure act, committed to installing a national network of 500,000 charging stations along designated “alternative fueling corridors” to add to the current 1.3 million charging stations. This might help battle “range anxiety” among consumers, but it may be a token gesture compared against the long-term market needs.

“The public infrastructure being promoted is highly underutilized, but it’s a necessary security blanket for consumers to feel like they can make longer trips and have a place to charge,” Pynn says. “The vast majority of charging for consumers is still likely to occur at or near home. Anybody who owns a single-family home will likely charge there unless they have really convenient charging at work. They won’t look for DC fast chargers at the grocery store; the convenience and economics are not there.”

Although funding from the infrastructure act is weighted toward public fast charging, and not earmarked for delivery companies seeking to electrify their fleets, the investment could energize the entire industry.

“The whole charging ecosystem should benefit from increased funding because manufacturers will need to produce more, scale up quickly, and advance the technology faster,” says Megan Harju, business development lead for transportation electrification at Burns & McDonnell.

As utilities look to electrify their fleets — to fulfill commitments to carbon emissions reduction, invest in renewable energy or sustainable technology, and demonstrate good faith to their customers — their lessons learned should help them refine their offerings.

“The utilities that are going to see the most success are the ones investing now, not waiting to react,” Harju says. “They’re creating pilot programs that they can learn from so that when the demands of scale come, they can be ready for it.”

Meeting Fleet Needs

That scale will emerge dramatically as transportation electrification moves beyond individual passenger vehicles to seeing entire fleets of vehicles electrified and needing charging infrastructure and strategy. This next frontier promises to bring cascading effects that the power industry and communities will need to prepare for.

Public transit is a few years ahead of the game, with technology significantly improving in the last decade as the federal government pushed money into the market through Federal Transit Administration grants.

“Those grants really started to press the issue with transit agencies, which would apply for those grants because it’s the right thing to do from a decarbonization standpoint,” Pynn says. “Having funds to help them down that path helped push the transit market along.”

Zero-emission vehicles represent 39% of all new buses being purchased in the U.S., according to BloombergNEF, compared to just 4% of passenger vehicles purchased in 2020.

“The transit market has really paved the way for electrification, especially for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles,” Pynn says. “And now we’re starting to see delivery vans and Class 8 trucks enter the market, and that really opens up a whole new world of private fleets.”

Standing up the capacity and infrastructure to meet such bulk charging needs will be a long process, Harju says.

“Utilities need a strategy for electrification, because it won’t just be a one- or two-year initiative,” she says. “This will be decadeslong for these fleets. People will have to learn to operate with two different fuel types — internal combustion and electric — for 10 or 20 years in their fleets. Utilities and fleet operators alike will need to identify approaches to optimize their costs for operations as they reduce carbon emissions.”

Consultants like 1898 & Co., a part of Burns & McDonnell, perform the business analysis and strategy development to help transform legacy approaches. Working with utilities, governmental bodies and transit agencies, the company prepares business cases and rate cases for a phased shift from traditional fuels to electrification that gives operators more confidence amid a changing paradigm.

Changing mindsets also will be critical because electrified transportation will require different operational models.

“With internal combustion vehicles, you can go to a gas station anytime, fill up in five minutes and be done,” Harju says. “That’s not how it’ll work in electrification — larger vehicles will take significantly longer to recharge — and getting businesses to learn that change and make that shift will be a huge obstacle in the transition.”

Pynn agrees that the adjustment for electric fleets will require extensive planning and analysis.

“It’s clear that their operations can’t stay exactly the same,” he says. “We spend time learning about fleet operators, and they’re very different, from running to a port every day to pick up containers or delivering groceries to dozens of stores. Where they deploy, where they have downtime, when they can charge — there are going to be differing models.”

Fleet operators also will need to prepare for having less flexibility in how they deploy their fleets. The incremental cost of buying vehicles with larger gas tanks is small, which has given fleet managers a lot of flexibility in how vehicles are deployed. The same is not true for EVs.

“Now it won’t make sense to buy all the same vehicles for differing duty cycles,” Pynn says. “If all your routes are under 100 miles a day, you can buy a fleet of vehicles with smaller battery packs and save money. But fleet managers will be constrained because a new 150-mile route might require a different vehicle.”

They also could consider utilizing vehicles on multiple routes. By alternating longer and shorter routes, it may be possible to reduce the variability in battery size across fleets and minimize the downtime needed for charging. This is another trade-off fleet managers could consider, as it would further cut down on flexibility and increase the complexity of the schedule in order to gain more uniformity in their vehicles.

“It takes time to help operators understand the needs of their fleets, the infrastructure requirements, financing, timing and construction phasing, since conversion doesn’t happen all at once,” Pynn says. “They will need to consider how to maintain current operations, fueling and storage as facilities are electrified over a period of years.”

The Right Rates

All of these changes will require major adaptations from electric utilities as they attempt to identify and predict load growth, as well as differing demand patterns. As organizations and companies ramp up their on-site electrification efforts, utilities need to be aware of the additional demand that will be placed on substations, sometimes even requiring entirely new substations to be built.

Those insights will help dictate modernization and expansion of the physical infrastructure to get reliable power wherever the electrified future requires it.

Rates may also play a significant role in smoothing the road to adoption. Regions with utilities that modernize their rates to accommodate electric fleets are more likely to see electrification become sustainable, Harju says.

“Those rates can involve peak and off-peak hours, as well as time-of-use rates,” she says. “It could also include a flat rate that removes demand charges, because those peak demand charges can make or break the fleet’s economic feasibility — being able to manage the peak demand your load draws.”

Innovative utilities may work with fleets to reduce demand charges and find a mutually beneficial arrangement: They get guaranteed demand, and the fleets don’t get crushed with peak demand charges. Careful planning for charging cycles, combined with progressive rates, will be an important element in making electrification economical on both the charge and demand sides.

The Sky Is the Limit

Transportation electrification will encompass vehicles well beyond personal automobiles and the medium- and heavy-duty trucks used in delivery, middle-mile and long-haul shipping. Ports, harbors and airports will be touched by electrification efforts that aim to reduce carbon emissions — indeed, this is already happening.

Electric ground support equipment is an established technology already being deployed at ports and aviation facilities, including cargo handling equipment from baggage tugs to pushback tractors.

“It’s a relatively easy way for airports to reduce emissions and enhance sustainability, and the money is there to electrify it,” says Dan Eekhoff, a project manager at Burns & McDonnell.

Electrification of actual aircraft is a bit further out, Eekhoff says, due to its dependence on battery technology advancement.

“The aviation market is typically cautious in adopting technology, and for good reason,” he says. “Safety is paramount and it’s important to keep this in perspective.”

Weight is another complicating factor: “The amount of energy you can get out of batteries currently is not nearly what you can get out of fossil fuel,” he says. “The power-to-weight ratio is the big challenge for batteries, so the likelihood of an electric trans-Atlantic flight is slim.”

“Anybody can install a charger; what is complicated is the business model and infrastructure behind it. A master plan can help.”

Dan Eekhoff

Project Manager

Local flights are seen as a much stronger possibility. Another promising nascent technology is electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing, which a variety of companies are investing in developing.

Airports also will face electrified fleet challenges in the form of rental car facilities.

“Anybody can install a charger; what is complicated is the business model and infrastructure behind it," Eekhoff says. "A master plan can help."

As with public charging and the infrastructure to support it, figuring out where to place the chargers and how to balance the load over time will be a complex endeavor, not to mention the sheer volume of power that is likely to be needed. It will take a rare cross-section of experience in transportation, aviation, and electrical transmission and distribution to address the infrastructure needs of electrification in a comprehensive fashion.

Full Speed Ahead

Electrification technology is coming. Given corporate commitments, clean energy mandates and regulations, and investment from the government and private sector alike, electric vehicles are on their way to passing the tipping point.

“There’s no turning back from that,” Harju says. “The biggest barriers will be getting people and companies to shift how they think and operate. That shift will be further enabled by utilities having friendly rate structures, as well as incentives at the federal and state level.”

The combined impact of these measures will be a step change in both EV adoption and infrastructure deployment in the U.S. The end of the road might not be visible yet, but the country is accelerating toward its electrification destination.

Thought Leaders

Bobby Cottam, PE

Civil Engineer
Burns & McDonnell

Dan Eekhoff

Project Manager
Burns & McDonnell

Megan Harju

Business Development Lead, Transportation Electrification
Burns & McDonnell

Kyle Pynn, PE

Transportation Electrification Business Line Director
Burns & McDonnell