A Collaborative Approach to Vehicle Electrification

BY KAMYA JAGADISH • August 3, 2022

Pop quiz: if a truck is traveling at 65 miles an hour for 5 hours and crosses three state borders, where does its pollution end up and who is responsible for the associated poor air quality?

While this question sounds like a high school math test, it’s the reality for federal, state, and local officials all over the country. The transportation sector contributes to 27 percent of the United States’ emissions, making it the largest single polluting sector. And there are severe health outcomes for communities exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution. Thanks to federal and state governments setting net zero greenhouse gas emissions goals, the transition to green auto energy is getting increased attention. And the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November 2021, creates critical funding to unlock progress on electrifying the nation’s vehicles and avoid the issue of emissions entirely. Now, the question is how best to accomplish this.

“I think what’s challenging here is that there is a great deal of urgency that is created both by the climate crisis and by the serious, disproportionate impacts of air pollution on communities that are located near trucking routes,” said Sarah McKearnan, senior manager for Clean Transportation at the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM). NESCAUM is a nonprofit association of air quality agencies in the six New England states, New Jersey, and New York, which does work catalyzing and guiding state initiatives focused on air quality and climate change. In a recent Data-Smart interview, McKearnan shared how she and her team facilitate an interstate approach to fleet electrification and provides examples for collaboration on energy and climate goals.

A key detail here is the regional coordination element since air quality and pollution clearly transcends state lines. And not only do air pollution and emissions travel between states, but so do vehicles themselves. As detailed in an earlier blog post about regional smart city development, there are additional benefits of this regional approach like scalability from combined resources and proactive considerations of interoperability between jurisdictions.

Prioritizing Automobile Electrification

In 2013, NESCAUM began focusing on the electrification of light-duty vehicles, namely passenger vehicles, which contribute 57 percent of transportation emissions. As McKearnan put it, “We facilitated an effort by which a number of governors came together and said we want to work together to advance the adoption of electric vehicles on our roads.” McKearnan and her team led an effort, directed by the governors, to convene a multi-state coalition that brings state government officials together to learn from each other on topics such as the design of electric vehicle purchase incentive programs, and to co-create best practices for undertakings such as funding investments in public electric charging networks. 

These interstate working groups create regional action, which can help when, for example, they teamed up with automakers to launch a wide-reaching campaign to grow consumer awareness of electric vehicle purchasing programs called “Drive Change. Drive Electric.”

Focusing on Truck and Bus Fleet Electrification

After having great success supporting states on light-duty vehicle electrification, in 2019 NESCAUM expanded to focus on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, namely trucks and buses, which is where 26 percent of transportation emissions come from. Not only are there differences in the actual pollution and engines between light- and heavy-duty vehicles, but the programmatic thinking varies when considering how to engage with individual consumers versus with corporate fleet owners. Accelerating the transition to electric trucks and buses will require engaging with the private sector and utilities, which requires early coordination and support in order to effectively guide where their investment goes.

While state-backed electric fleet purchase incentive programs for fleet owners and operators are widely discussed, NESCAUM emphasizes the need to incorporate equity directly into the incentive program structure. For example, NESCAUM recommends building incentive programs that prioritize the electrification of fleets operating in communities that are disproportionately impacted by diesel emissions such as those near warehouses and distribution centers.

Creating a Collaborative Action Plan

NESCAUM has created a Multi-State Medium- and Heavy-Duty Zero-Emission Vehicle Action Plan (currently being finalized for public release), which includes 65 recommendations for states ranging from setting sales and fleet purchase requirements to considering economic equity for workers. McKearnan did acknowledge that states will encounter barriers to implementation, which is why the collaboration is so important “There’s way more to do than any one individual state will be able to do in the near term. Each state is going to need to look at this broad suite of recommendations in light of what the unique opportunities are in their jurisdictions and what’s possible from a policy standpoint,” she said “I think this planning effort speaks to [the states’] perspective that by working closely together through the task force, they can really spur faster actions and learn from each other in a way that advances the market more effectively.”

Scaling and Expanding Electrification

But the work doesn’t stop with these jurisdictions that are already part of the NESCAUM-facilitated coalition (which includes 17 US states, the District of Columbia, and the province of Quebec). Not only can these recommendations guide other states, but there are also recommendations for federal and city governments on how to utilize their position in the electrification process. On the federal level, beyond creating funding pools and adopting emissions regulations, federal policy can be leveraged for actions such developing a robust charging network in rural highway areas to ensure that there are no big gaps in the charging network. On the local level, governments hold considerable power via zoning, construction ordinances, and permitting regulations. A creative example from NESCAUM’s action plan is the recommendation that local governments can give businesses property tax credits to install electric charging infrastructure for the trucks that service their businesses.

Everyone has a part to play in the energy transition, whether it is as a vehicle purchaser, a business property owner, or a government official. Even utility companies are coming together in recognition of their combined force in creating coordinated infrastructure investments, as seen in the West Coast Clean Transit Corridor Initiative. The NESCAUM jurisdictions “have worked so hard together and in a highly coordinated fashion to develop this plan for state action,” said McKearnan. “It really is a testament to the strong priority that our states are placing on growing the electric vehicle market as quickly as possible, because of the important benefits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants.” As the US moves forward in addressing climate change, more of this coordinated action – amongst regions and sectors – will be pivotal in catalyzing real change.

About the Author

Kamya Jagadish

Kamya Jagadish is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions while she pursues a Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration at Harvard. Before coming to graduate school, she worked as a data scientist and product manager in the tech sector and as an innovation specialist within the US Department of Transportation. At school she is focused on determining pathways to leverage private capital and partnerships for the public sector.