Green City: Raleigh Adopts Electric Car Technology

Raleigh is just one green city that has embraced hybrid technology to make their community more efficient and economical.

| May 05, 2014

Electric car charging station

Green city leaders in Raleigh, North Carolina have installed nearly 30 electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city.

Photo by Fotolia/joel_420

With dense development, increasing population and myriad resources, cities have all the assets necessary for sustainability. The Guide to Greening Cities (Island Press, 2013) is the first book of its kind: written from the perspective of municipal leaders with real experience working to advance green city goals. Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas and Julia Parzen provide case studies and strategies for overcoming common challenges associated with implementing such projects. The following excerpt, from “Leading from the Inside Out: Greening City Buildings and Operations,” highlights the success of green city goals in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A solar-powered electric vehicle charging station sits in front of the convention center in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Assistant City Manager Julian Prosser insists it’s not just a passing green fad but the wave of the future—in Raleigh and beyond. Vehicle-to-grid technologies, he says, will one day allow the power stored in electric vehicles (EVs) to be fed back into the electric grid so that utilities can avoid buying expensive peak-hour energy. “In my opinion, that’s the holy grail,” Prosser says. The convention center’s charging station is just one of nearly thirty installed so far in Raleigh, which, together with the rest of the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, has emerged as a world leader in electric vehicle readiness, thanks to clear and strong support from policy makers, solid strategic partnerships with key stakeholders, and green city leaders who knew how to turn yesterday’s pitfalls into today’s success.

The Inside Story of a Green City

The City of Raleigh began dabbling in greener fuels back in the 1990s, when the director of Raleigh’s solid waste services department approached Prosser, who was the fleet manager at the time, and told him of his interest in switching to biodiesel. They began using that cleaner fuel in the city’s garbage trucks and had a good experience, and “that gave us courage to go further,” says Prosser. They converted much of the rest of the city’s diesel fleet to biodiesel. When the gas-electric hybrid technology came along, Prosser took a similar approach: he purchased a few vehicles to see how they would do. “I was looking for ways to reduce our cost of operations,” Prosser recalls. “At first, people thought the hybrids were too expensive. But we tried a couple and found that they made good sense cost-wise.”

The city also began experimenting with plug-in hybrids, encouraged by a local nonprofit organization called the Plug-In Hybrid Coalition of the Carolinas, which had funding from power companies and saw electric vehicles as a way to efficiently use off-peak power, since cars would often be recharged overnight. “We saw the potential to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and all that goes along with that, including the cost of sending our young men and women into dangerous places to protect supplies,” Prosser says. “It just seemed to me that there was a huge advantage to the city to look into EVs.”

Raleigh bought a few more hybrids, converted them to plug-ins, augmented their battery capacity, and “played with that for a few years,” Prosser says. Along the way, the city developed a stronger partnership with Progress Energy, the privately owned utility that supplies Raleigh’s electricity. Progress Energy recognized the opportunity to sell off-peak electricity to this emerging market. The utility was working toward its own green power supply goal of reaching at least 12.5 percent renewable energy sources by 2021—a goal established by North Carolina’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. This state regulation, requiring increased production from renewable sources, is the first such standard in the southeastern United States. “That gave them an incentive to work more collaboratively with local governments,” Prosser says.

It was Progress Energy that in 2008 convened a group of key EV stakeholders, including the City of Raleigh and Nissan, to push the idea that the Raleigh region should participate in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready, a national initiative to help US cities get ready for plug-in vehicles. By this time, the city had established an ambitious goal of reducing its fleet’s fossil fuel use to 20 percent below 2006 levels by 2011. The goal had been recommended by the Environmental Advisory Board, an all-volunteer board staffed by Prosser and Paula Thomas, the City of Raleigh’s sustainability initiatives manager. The mayor and city manager both embraced the goal, and the city council adopted it unanimously. “The field had been cleared and plowed,” Prosser says. “We saw EVs and Project Get Ready as a big opportunity to help us meet this goal.”

5/7/2014 3:27:38 PM

While I like the idea of electric vehicles, I harbor no illusions about the amount of pollution that is associated with their use. The use of heavy metals and rare earth elements that require unusually high amounts of energy during their manufacture and their continuing consumption of electric power produced largely by electric generation facilities operated on fossil fuels does not have as large of a positive impact on the environment that people want to believe that they do. What really is occurring is that the generation of power is more centralized, and the premise for doing this is that it is assumed that the centralization will allow industrial controls to be applied in a more effective way to the production and use of electric power. There are some small efficiencies that electric motor-driven vehicles have over internal combustion engines. One of the chief benefits is the elimination of reciprocation within the engine itself which wastes power. Electric motors are rotary engines and thus eliminate reciprocation. There are other efficiencies as well, but all told, they do not add up to the warm fuzzy feeling that people get when they cease to see exhaust coming from a tailpipe. A major concern I have with the trend toward an all-electric motoring culture is the unspoken dependence that vehicles have on being more closely tethered to charging stations. The Nissan Leaf will go about 70-80 miles on a single charge, but before that limit has been reached it must recharge, or else it will be dead in the water. A gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle can go between 350-700 miles before it needs to be concerned about finding a refueling station. What does this matter? Consider the possibility of a city having a natural disaster. Think of Hurricane Katrina or an earthquake, tornado, or other calamitous event that has the very real possibility of wiping out the electric grid. Drivers might try to flee the area in their vehicles, only to discover that after between 12 to 70 miles (on a full charge), they are stuck. The only way to get them off the road would be to recharge every one of them or to two them. In a city like Los Angeles where there are quite literally millions of cars, an all-electric motoring culture would make a catastrophe of the kind described even more catastrophic since the centralization of electric "fuel" would produce a single point of failure. I am strongly in favor of using something other than fossil fuels. The belief that the entire planet can presume to consume its own oxygen supply and at the same time treat its atmosphere as a garbage can without any repercussions is pure self-delusion. Something has to be done, but there needs to be a lot more thought devoted to designing things correctly from the start instead of leaving it to politicians, who unfortunately have a habit of doing things in ways that only make things worse.

5/7/2014 1:29:16 AM

Wow! 99% of the time Mother Earth News is on the money. But you missed it by MORE then a mile on this one. I'm going to sadly assume that as much as you care about the environment you've missed the national attention Raleigh and North Carolina's leaders have been getting for their blatant disregard for anything remotely "green". Please do further investigation into exactly how environmentally friendly Raleigh REALLY is.

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