- Electrify Everything
- Clean up the grid
These two bullet items make up a core mantra for those concerned with addressing climate change. Some simple truths:
- The power (electricity) sector is, writ large, getting cleaner every day – with significant and potentially accelerating renewable energy growth – while fossil fuels remain dirty and destructive.
- In the global energy system, there has been a stark separation between fixed infrastructure, such as power plants, and transportation energy. The first has been open to multiple options and change, the second relatively fixed to the burning of fossil fuels – from the introduction of coal into shipping in the late 1800s through jet fuel today. The dominance of petroleum in the transportation sector, however, is now rapidly changing, with electric vehicles of all sorts — cars, trucks, ships, aircraft — entering into the market.
- Still, the power (electricity) sector provides a clearer and easier path to lower pollution impacts than other, “tougher” energy domains. And, if we can electrify – using rapidly increasing shares of clean energy – sectors/areas of the economy that are dominated today by fossil fuels, we can ease the path toward reducing the climate (and other pollution) impacts of those sectors.
Virginia — for political, economic, social reasons — is on the cusp of seeing this combination play out in a serious way.
The new Democratic-controlled legislature is considering a range of legislation to move Virginia toward a more resilient, cost-effective, and clean electricity system. While whatever measures pass will be unlikely to be “enough” to address the climate challenge and less than what seems reasonably viable, there will be many steps forward and improvements that will likely include measures for increased distributed solar, greater energy efficiency, and the Commonwealth’s first-ever *mandatory* Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). From utility planning to businesses demanding clean electrons to legislating an RPS, Virginia is moving forward to “clean up the grid.”
As to the first, “electrify everything,” Dominion Energy’s announcement earlier today of the localities selected for the deployment of its first 50 electric school buses (ESBs) is a tangible step forward to moving Virginia transportation off fossil fuels (in this case, high-polluting diesel buses) toward ever-cleaner electrons.
As discussed elsewhere, Dominion’s ESB project could well be truly game-changing. ESBs have huge benefits (such as reduced cancer and asthma, V2G (vehicle to grid) enabling using the batteries to improve grid performance and to ease leveraging of clean electrons, reduced operating costs, etc. But the upfront investment costs have made it difficult for school systems to move forward with ESBs – a classic chase of CtB to CtO (cost to buy vs cost to own). Dominion’s approach attacks — and solves — this problem head-on, by eliminating that upfront cost obstacle while providing (at least some) shared financial savings/benefits for school systems into the future.
Fairfax County School Board Member Karl Frisch, a strong electric bus proponent, captured this in his enthusiastic share of Dominion’s announcement this morning.
BIG NEWS: Fairfax County Public Schools is getting EIGHT NEW ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUSES! Dominion Energy will cover difference in cost so we pay no more than we do for diesel models. They will also subsidize the charging infrastructure. More details to come. https://t.co/cNgJVpciKR— Karl Frisch (@KarlFrisch) January 16, 2020
Virginia’s public K-12 schools have over 16,000 yellow diesel-fuming school buses, with over 13,000 in Dominion’s territory. Dominion is using its own funds (from excess profits/overcharges) to initiate a decade-long project to move all these 13,000 from diesel to clean electrons. Today’s announcement marks a tangible step forward as:
Phase one will bring 50 electric school buses to 16 localities within Dominion Energy’s Virginia service area by the end of 2020.
By this time next year, some students in 16 localities will have more comfortable bus rides to school and lower exposure to dangerous diesel fumes due to Dominion Energy’s decision to move forward with what could be a truly game-changing Electric School Bus program that will, hopefully, move forward (in some manner) such that all Virginia school transportation is electric within the decade.
Caveating the situation
While truly exhilarated that there are tangible moves forward electrifying school transportation in a program that could open the door nationwide, due to speed and scale driving down acquisition costs, very serious concerns and questions remain about whether the Dominion Energy-controlled project is “the” right path forward.
To be clear, as stated before, having Dominion making profits from doing the right thing is something to applaud — even with a standing ovation.
At the same time, there are quite serious reasons for alarm bells and concerns.
These range from Dominion’s long history of delivering its own managed projects at higher cost what the competitive market would imply – Dominion’s solar power price, for example, is roughly double what the independent market is providing today – to whether “grid” concerns should drive the prioritization of when/where school buses are electrified, to whether a Dominion Energy-controlled project will encroach on legitimate government decision-making domains.
Thus, while applauding, even celebrating, these tangible moves toward cleaner, healthier, safer, quieter, more reliable, and lower-cost transportation of public school students, the legislature has many issues to consider about how the Commonwealth should move forward with electric school buses.