Green City: Raleigh Adopts Electric Car Technology

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Photo by Fotolia/joel_420
Green city leaders in Raleigh, North Carolina have installed nearly 30 electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city.

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.”

The city joined Project Get Ready and established a broad-based interdepartmental team that consisted of senior staff from the transportation, planning, development and permitting, public affairs, and other departments. Team members tackled a range of complex challenges, including where to put charging stations and how to permit, finance, install, and maintain them. They educated residents about the benefits of EVs, worked with auto dealers to encourage them to offer EVs, and explored EV-related business and job creation opportunities. But being an early adopter is challenging, and the EV industry hadn’t yet settled on a standard plug, even though it was clear that nobody would buy EVs or install charging stations until that decision was made. “We knew we had to wait,” says Paula Thomas, who led the interdepartmental team. “That bought us time to work out some wrinkles and gear up. Once the standard plug decision was made, we were ready to hit the ground running, and we did.”

They started by installing two charging stations in front of city hall. Several companies responded to the city’s request for proposals, with bids ranging from $17,000 to $72,000, “an indication that nobody had any idea what these stations were going to cost,” Thomas says. The team selected a local company and built rigorous requirements into the contract for data collection and sharing so that the city could track usage and use the data to set prices and promote the program. “We want to push out those findings so that we can show people that adoption rates are picking up as the cars become available and prices come down,” says Thomas.

The success of those first two charging stations provided the city with the experience and confidence to install an additional twenty-seven stations around the city. Funding for this first phase came from $300,000 in federal grants, including an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, and from the city budget, including an allocation from a sustainability innovation fund established by the city manager and awarded competitively to departments looking to advance innovative green solutions.

By the end of 2012, Raleigh had installed twenty-nine EV charging stations, eleven for city fleet use and eighteen public stations where users pay for parking but not electricity. The city has purchased a number of EVs for its own fleet, including three all-electric vehicles and nine plug-in hybrids. The first two charging stations at city hall were followed by a third in front of the convention center, to maximize visibility. The city is supporting the installation of charging stations throughout the community, working with Progress Energy and a nonprofit advocacy group called Advanced Energy to help homeowners install residential chargers, and streamlining the permitting process so that it takes only two days to process a home-based charging station permit, from application to inspection. In addition, green city leaders in Raleigh have identified and are addressing a number of barriers to EV adoption, providing training for contractors and inspectors, for example, and making adjustments to building and electrical codes as well as ordinances related to signage and parking. The city also has produced two instructional videos on installing EV charging stations and posted them on its website, and it offers free training workshops for electrical contractors.

Challenges of Green Cities

There have been many challenges along the way, most of them related to managing the risks associated with being an early adopter. “Is this technology going to survive? Have we stepped out too far and too fast? Are we going to see ‘Death of the Electric Car: Part 2’? Is this effort going to fall flat on its face? We get a lot of questions like that,” says Thomas. “And the truth is, we don’t know. But we’ve done a lot to minimize and manage the concerns.” The interdepartmental team that Thomas leads has been central to that risk management strategy. “We created that team to talk explicitly about the risk and to get broad buy-in. That was one way of spreading the risk. We learned together, we experimented together, and so we were invested together when it came time to roll this out.”

Securing the early support of business leaders such as Progress Energy and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce—by emphasizing the economic development potential along with the environmental benefits—was very important, as was securing outside funding for the initial capital investment, which didn’t put too much additional pressure on an already constrained city budget. The role of the Rocky Mountain Institute as third-party convener was an important risk reducer as well. The well-respected national nonprofit organization brought expertise, technical support, and credibility to the effort.

Key Factors for Success

What accounts for the effectiveness of Raleigh’s green fleet program? The following seven factors have a lot to do with it.

Strong top-level support. The clear mandate from the mayor, city manager, and city council—especially a unanimously adopted city council resolution embracing the goal of reducing the city fleet’s energy consumption by 20 percent by 2011—has been critical to the success of the project so far. “You can have your champions in the departments and the community, but unless you have that strong support from the highest levels of your organization, it’s hard,” Thomas says.

Piloting, proving, pursuing. Prosser and Thomas were careful to start with relatively small steps and to bring others (via the interdepartmental Project Get Ready team) along every step of the way. “We didn’t bite off too much,” says Thomas. “We started with two EV charging stations. Once people stopped laughing, we were more comfortable moving ahead and expanding the infrastructure system and buying some more vehicles. Now all of the department directors want one—the police chief, the fire chief, the finance director, everybody. Even the people who didn’t even know EVs existed are now clamoring for one. And that’s what you want.”

Applying lessons learned. Green city leaders were systematic about integrating into their EV initiative green fleet management lessons learned twenty years earlier, when the city’s investment in compressed natural gas vehicles got too far ahead of the availability of fueling infrastructure. “Back then, we were trying to push on a rope,” Prosser says, referring to the city’s decision to invest in vehicles before sufficient fueling infrastructure was in place. “We were not as strategic as we are today, and we learned a bit from that!”

An economic development frame. Framing the initiative in terms of its potential to save money and create economic opportunities as well as protect the environment helped bring the utility and the business community on board early, which was critical. In Raleigh, it costs only about $3 to fully charge an electric vehicle and travel 100 miles, compared with about $14 to drive the same distance in a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle, assuming mileage of 25 miles per gallon and gas priced at $3.50 per gallon. “People could see that this wasn’t solely a green idea—that it wasn’t just some environmental zealot pushing her own agenda,” Thomas says.

Aligning with the priorities of others. Raleigh’s green city leaders saw and seized the opportunity to align with the interests and priorities of three other key groups: the federal government, which had laid out a bold goal for EV adoption nationally and provided funding through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program; Progress Energy, which needed to move in a greener direction as a result of new state standards; and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which was on the lookout for cities willing to be early adopters of EV technologies and participate in its Project Get Ready.

Partnership and collaboration. The Project Get Ready team that Thomas assembled, with a range of department directors as well as key external stakeholders such as Progress Energy and auto industry representatives, was an effective way to build a sense of shared ownership and responsibility—including responsibility for the risks. Project Get Ready created an important learning network of early-adopter cities, EV manufacturers, electricity providers, and other experts from the academic and nonprofit sectors. As Project Get Ready’s director, Matt Mattila, puts it: “There is no substitute for shared learning when building and pursuing an EV-readiness strategy.”

Building on long-standing local assets. The Research Triangle region of North Carolina, which includes the cities of Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham, as well as three great universities and many innovative technology companies, has a rich history of technological innovation, which Raleigh’s green city leaders were able to take advantage of. “We are expected to be open to new technologies,” Prosser says. “We’re building on a great legacy here.”

From The Guide to Greening Citiesby Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas, and Julia Parzen. Copyright © 2013 by authors. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.