Blog

Formula E: from the racetrack…to your driveway

June 24, 2020

If you’re a sports fan, there’s a new(ish) event you can feel great about watching: Formula E auto racing. As Formula One’s electric little brother, Formula E is fast, furious, and it’s (literally) changing the world. In the same way Formula One influenced the design and technology of many of today’s gas-guzzling speedsters, Formula E is at the forefront of developing more efficient electric vehicles (EVs). It’s shaping the very cars we’ll be driving in the future—and it’s not easing off the accelerator anytime soon.

When Formula E launched in 2014, hard-core motorsports fans were skeptical. Fast forward a few years, and it’s now the biggest mainstream electric car competition in the world, holding its own among other top events. Last season alone, more than 400,000 spectators came through the turnstiles, and viewership exceeded 400 million. With Formula E’s fanbase revving up, the event has been upgraded to world championship status, the first single-seater racing series outside of Formula One to achieve this honor.

What’s the allure? Sure, “ePrix” racing involves seat-gripping action and some of the biggest names in the automotive world. But Formula E is also one of the few sports that actually jives with the clean energy future we all need to move to (and fast). They’re getting millions of people—especially young people—excited about the potential for EVs to help stabilize our climate and clean up our air. Put simply, in today’s climate-challenged world, Formula E is relevant in a way that smoke-belching stock cars are not.

On June 26 we joined Audi’s Formula E racing team for an online conversation around how the sport is shaking up the racing world and what it means for our mobility future. Watch the recording here.

According to Alberto Longo, chief operating officer of Formula E, the core purpose of the race series is “to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles on a global scale. Formula E is about racing for a cleaner future, faster.” The cutting-edge technologies being tested on the ePrix circuit have practical, real-world applications in today’s commercial EV fleets and beyond. That’s a key reason many of the world’s top auto manufacturers—from Audi and BMW to Mercedes and Nissan—have signed up to participate in the series.

Formula E has helped advance traditionally posed a barrier to mainstreaming electric transport. Just a few years ago, ePrix drivers couldn’t make it through a 45-minute race without swapping out their vehicles, because the batteries weren’t powerful enough. Today, the cars can last through an entire race while maintaining speeds of around 175 miles an hour. The sport has revolutionized EV battery and software development in a very short period. “That’s an incredible time-frame and makes you wonder what the next five years will bring,” said Sylvain Filippi, managing director of Envision Virgin Racing, one of the greenest teams in Formula E.

Technology trialed on the racing circuit is now being used in Jaguar’s first electric SUV, the I-PACE, which recently entered the commercial market and can travel more than 250 miles on a single charge. Beyond the luxury market, more affordable EVs with greatly improved driving range are available from automakers like Kia, Nissan and Tesla, whose Model 3 was the ninth best-selling car (of all types) in the U.S. last year, with a range exceeding 300 miles. The second-hand EV market is also growing.

Man in driveway getting out of his electric car

EVs are only as “green” as the energy used to charge them. That’s why Formula E recharges the car batteries used in races using generators that run on zero-emissions glycerin, a by-product of producing biodiesel. Back in the real world, we’ll be charging the EVs parked in our driveways with the electricity from our homes—so the greener we can make that (by installing rooftop solar panels and using other renewable power sources), the fewer emissions we’ll generate overall.

Sometimes, it can be hard to fathom the passion that hard-core fanatics have for car racing (or any sport, really). But if we can translate that same level of enthusiasm and commitment into demand for electrifying our transportation systems, that’s something we can all get behind. Given the rapid acceleration on the Formula E front, we should soon see EVs taking their victory lap around the world.

 

Blog

There’s a nationwide school budget crisis. Solar can help.

June 17, 2020

Update:
Shortly after this article was published in 2020, Generation180 released its national study on solar adoption at U.S. K12 schools, which found that the amount of solar installed on nationwide schools grew by nearly 2.5X from 2015 through 2019.  The study found that 79% of those solar projects were funded through third-party ownership with minimal to no upfront capital costs. Tucson Unified School District in Arizona is a district that has installed solar on nearly 90 schools and expects to save $43 million over 20 years.

As the fallout from COVID continues to bulldoze through the economy, you’ve probably heard about the massive cuts to school budgets across the U.S. This means not only less money for buildings and equipment, but fewer dollars spent per student and sharp cuts in staffing and teacher pay. By one estimate, if states slash their education spending by 15 percent, schools could be forced to eliminate more than 300,000 teaching positions, or nearly one-tenth of the country’s K-12 teacher force. No joke.

Fortunately, thousands of U.S. schools are already modeling a smart solution for tight budgets: going solar. Energy costs are the second largest expense for schools after personnel. By installing solar panels, these forward-thinking institutions are saving millions of dollars in utility bills and using the extra cash to invest in teachers, build playgrounds, and create new curricula.

Energy costs are the second largest expense for schools after personnel.

What’s more, most schools going solar these days are doing so with little-to-no up-front costs—thanks to a key financing mechanism: the power purchase agreement (PPA). In this arrangement, a third-party installs, owns, and maintains the solar panels, while the school simply agrees to buy the electricity the panels produce.

All this sound too good to be true? Consider this success story from Generation180’s upcoming national report on solar schools: Hamilton Southeastern Schools in the rapidly growing suburb of Fishers, Indiana, previously spent $4 million annually on electricity across the district’s 22 schools. After installing solar on three schools, it now reaps around $310,000 a year in savings. Among other things, the revenue has supported two new playgrounds and a classroom curriculum to help students get excited about STEM and renewable energy. Bigger districts are benefiting as well. Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia—the 10th largest school district in the country—is part of a large municipal solar project encompassing over 100 sites that is expected to save $60 million over 25 years.

Batesville School District’s ground-mounted solar installation (credit: Batesville School District)

For at least one school we interviewed for the same upcoming report, teacher salaries were the driving force in the decision to go solar. Three years ago, Batesville School District in Independence County, Arkansas, was paying $607,203 annually in utilities and ranked fourth out of five districts in its county for teacher pay. After the district installed enough solar panels to cover half of its electricity needs, utility bills dropped to 30-40 percent of previous levels. Much of the savings has gone to teachers: Batesville now ranks first in teacher pay of the five districts, providing average salary increases of $2,000 to $3,000 a year. “Putting money into staff is the best way to put students first,” said district superintendent Michael Hester.

To finance solar, most schools opt for a power purchase agreement (PPA), in which a third party purchases, owns, and maintains the solar panels, and the school or district agrees to buy the electricity produced by the solar energy system for the length of the agreement, often 25+ years. PPAs are popular because a school can install solar with little-to-no upfront investment or ongoing maintenance costs, and typically pays a lower electricity rate. Although not all states allow for third-party ownership of school property (yet!), things are changing quickly. Alternatively, schools that own their solar systems outright often can (through net metering) apply the “credits” they earn from generating solar power over the summer to their electricity bills in the winter, adding to the savings.

Cartoon showing the sun at a chalkboard teaching a classroom full of students

Chances are, you’re in a school district that’s facing budget cuts. And it’s a good bet that Uncle Sam (or Auntie DeVos) won’t be swooping in to help anytime soon. The $2 trillion CARES Act recently provided K-12 schools with more than $13 billion in emergency funding, but districts face hurdles in using the money, and it isn’t nearly enough to stem the bleeding. Right now, going solar might be the best option our schools have to boost revenues and support their own “essential workers.” Fortunately, it’s a darn good one. 

Thanks to tech innovation and industry growth, solar on schools (and homes, businesses, and other public buildings) just makes common sense now. It’s a win for budgets, students, the public health of the communities they serve, regional job growth, and the clean energy future we’re all working to secure.

Originally published in the 6/17/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter

Blog

Virginians: submit comments to support EV adoption

June 12, 2020

Own an electric vehicle in Virginia? We’ve got an (urgent) opportunity for you to help shape important regulation in the Commonwealth. Ready to dive into the bureaucratic sausage-making? Read on…

Here’s what’s going on: there’s a State Corporation Commission (SCC) call for public comments concerning electric vehicles, charging, electricity rate design, and more.

What on earth is the SCC?

Most people aren’t aware of this commission’s existence (which is perfectly understandable), but it’s an incredibly influential entity when it comes to Virginia’s transition to clean energy. The SCC is Virginia’s public utility commission, which is a governing body that regulates the rates and services of a public utility, such as an electric utility. Electric vehicles obviously use electricity to charge, and therefore their increased deployment impacts the SCC’s purview of utility oversight. (More on PUCs and how you can engage with them in the Civics section of Generation180’s Boot Camp).

The task at hand

The SCC is currently asking for public comments about EVs, but it’s clear from their tone that the SCC isn’t as enthusiastic about electric cars as we are. From their perspective, increased adoption rates of electric vehicles present “several issues that potentially could affect the affordability and reliability of electricity service.” But where they see “issues”, we see opportunity. This public comment period is an important moment to weigh in while the SCC “explores” a number of areas of possible EV-related regulations. There are three main messages that the SCC needs to hear from EV owners like you:

    1. There’s growing demand for electric vehicles.
    2. Charging more EVs on Virginia’s electricity grid can actually help, not hurt things (for everybody involved!).
    3. EVs play a key role in Virginia meeting its carbon reduction goals.

The good news is that public comments actually do help influence the SCC (clearly we wouldn’t waste your time if this wasn’t true!). Below is a response that you can submit using the SCC’s comments portal. Feel free to personalize/tweak as you see fit!

Thank you for the opportunity to support our Commonwealth’s transition to clean energy and electric transportation. As one of more than 15,000 EV owners in Virginia, I am eager to support the growth of electric vehicles in my community. Electric vehicles aren’t just the future, they’re here today.

Now is the time to ensure that we all benefit from the grid stability EV’s can provide. Using managed charging, it is entirely possible to accommodate a significant growth in the number of EVs across VA without raising energy rates or building additional capacity. Key to making this work is properly incentivizing EV owners to charge during off-peak hours, using strategies such as time-of-use rate schemes. This allows EVs to take advantage of an otherwise idle grid, preventing the need for increased total capacity. Off-peak charging also helps prevent the inefficient spin-up and wind-down of excess capacity power plants. Eliminating these inefficiencies results in cheaper electricity for everyone, not just EV owners.

The dynamic charging capability of EVs allows them to capture and store renewable energy like wind and solar. While there is more research to be done, I encourage the SCC to embrace emerging technologies such as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration that will allow EV batteries to act as a distributed energy storage network that can be drawn upon to alleviate peak demand.  

To meet the Virginia Clean Economy Act carbon reduction goals, as well as those stipulated in Executive Order 43, Virginia needs to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles. As an EV driver, I’m doing my part to reduce carbon emissions. The SCC has the opportunity to do its part as well by supporting electric vehicles and promoting an equitable transition to clean energy. Thank you for your consideration.

Again, here’s the link to submit your comment to the SCC. We’re aiming for a total of 250 comment submissions, and we’d love to count yours towards that goal. Shoot us a quick message at hello@generation180.org to confirm once you’ve submitted your comment. Thank you!

Thanks for raising your voice to help drive clean energy action in Virginia. Head over to our Electrify Your Ride Ambassador page to learn about more ways to get involved. 

Blog

Join us for a conversation with a (championship-winning) electric racing team

June 11, 2020

What do 175mph street races through Hong Kong and our global transition to clean transportation have in common? Formula E, the world’s premier all-electric street-racing series, continues to be a driving force behind the technological advancement and popularization of electric vehicles.

Join Generation180 as we discuss the innovation, growth, perception, and impact of electric vehicle technology and Formula E racing with two world renowned drivers, Lucas di Grassi (Audi Sport ABT Schaffler & UN Climate Ambassador) and Allan McNish (Audi Sport Formula E Team Principal).

Electrify Your Ride: from Racetrack to Driveway - A Conversation with Audi's Formula E Racing Team

Want to know what the future of electric mobility looks like? Just look at the technology hitting the Formula E racetrack. “Competition has and always will be a major catalyst,” says McNish. For decades, Formula racing has yielded advancements like antilock brakes, traction control, and dual-clutch transmissions. Now that the age of electric mobility has arrived, Formula E is leading the way, providing a competitive platform for global car manufacturers to test and develop road-relevant technologies like longer-range batteries, energy-efficient systems, and cutting edge software.

Originally launched in 2014 “as a means to demonstrate the potential of sustainable mobility to help create a better, cleaner world,” Formula E has grown into a global entertainment brand with 24 drivers and 12 teams—including legacy racing manufacturers like Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Nissan, Porsche, and Mercedes.

The racing series continues to live out its stated mission “to shock the system.” Join our discussion to see how Formula E is shaking up the racing world and what it means for our mobility future.

The online event is on June 26 at 12 p.m. ET.

Blog

Blue skies: just one of the reasons to drive electric (ASAP)

June 10, 2020

Remember those clear skies city-dwellers got a glimpse of during lockdown? As the economy starts (thankfully!) cranking again and resumes burning fossil fuels, they definitely won’t stick around for long. But if you’re inspired by the prospect of a less smoggy future, here’s one good place to start: swap out your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle. 

Over the past few months, we’ve gotten a crash course in how our daily driving habits impact the planet. With most of us restricted to our homes, air quality improved across large swaths of the U.S. Pollution over New York City dropped dramatically as levels of carbon monoxide, released mainly from vehicle tailpipes, plunged nearly 50 percent. Now that states are reopening and mobility is again on the rise, a big question is how to sustain (or at least recreate) some of those clean air gains. The challenge seems daunting: gas is an alluring $2 a gallon, public transport still gives us the heebie-jeebies, and, in a sign of the times, many city dwellers are buying a car for the first time.

 

Smog-free Los Angeles skyline
A smog-free LA skyline during the pandemic lockdown (Photo credit: WSJ)


Enter EVs. The growing demand for “safer” transport options, alongside our collective experience of bluer skies, offers the perfect opening to reconsider electric. Europeans definitely think so: in an April survey, 45 percent of UK residents confirmed that the noticeable improvement in air quality during lockdown made them revisit their plans for EV ownership. Importantly, the survey found they’re planning to make the switch within the next 5 years, versus a timeline of 10-15 years in a previous survey. 

Blue skies aren’t the only compelling reason to consider an EV right now. Here’s another big one: oil markets are going bonkers, providing an unpleasant reminder that an economy dependent on oil is a vulnerable economy indeed. Negative barrel prices, Saudi-Russian price wars, and a fragile, debt-ridden domestic fracking industry are all things we’d do better to leave behind.

 

Piling it on: oil price wars further increased volatility as the market plunged.


This perfect storm makes EVs an increasingly reliable option. As Ben Prochazka with the Electrification Coalition recently noted, “Whether you’re a consumer, business, state, or a city, right now an electric vehicle and plugging into the grid gives you the greatest certainty of how much that’s going to cost to operate.” While their initial price tag might be higher, EVs are cheaper to operate over their lifetimes than gas-powered cars—saving EV owners a combined $51.6 million last year, by one analysis. Not to mention that charging your car cheaply at home feels a whole lot safer right now than sharing a germy gas station pump. 

That said, we can’t lose focus on the other big crisis we’re facing—climate change—which so far hasn’t shown much sign of easing during COVID. A new study confirms that even when charged on an electric grid powered mostly by fossil fuels, electric cars still have a lower carbon footprint than the most efficient new gas-powered vehicles. And as our electric grid gets cleaner with more wind and solar coming online, electricity-powered EVs will account for less and less emissions (more on this concept here). “Taking into account emissions from manufacturing and ongoing energy use, it’s clear that we should encourage the switch to electric cars…without any regrets,” said environmental scientist Florian Knobloch, a lead author of the study. 

Still fixated on those clear skies? Now that we’re back to more choice in our daily routines, how about we take proactive steps to achieve the air quality we want, rather than being forced into outcomes we may not be able to control. Of course, getting to clean air will require changes beyond just how we get around (case in point: in many US cities, relentless emissions from heavy transport, refineries, and power plants largely outweighed any lockdown-induced gains from reduced driving). But, for so many good reasons, accelerating the shift to EVs is a huge part of the solution. 

EVs benefit many aspects of our lives, giving us the mobility we need while providing an opportunity to clean up our air, stabilize our budgets, and tackle the climate emergency. During lockdowns, it became clear that changing our own personal driving habits can make a big collective difference—so let’s keep the momentum going.

Ready to take a step on your journey to owning an EV? Two things you can do:

  1. Sign the “Going Electric” pledge to commit to making your next car electric. Then share it with your friends/network. 
  2. Ready to research EV models? For those of you in and around Virginia, head over to electrifyyourrideva.org to learn more and sign up for discounts on the latest electric models. Not in the area? Plugstar.com is a great resource to learn more about available models.

Originally published in the 6/10/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter

Blog

Scrubbing dirty fuels from the ivory tower

June 3, 2020

Sadly, there’s no shortage of things to be outraged about these days. But here’s a hopeful trend:  the movement among the world’s major higher education institutions to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. Just last week, the University of California (UC) system announced that it had fully divested from oil, gas, and other dirty fuels, scrubbing them from its $126 billion investment portfolio. It joins other top names in higher ed, from Georgetown to Cornell to Oxford University, with many more scrambling to join the club.

Divestment is basically the opposite of investment. It involves getting rid of any financial interests—like stocks, bonds, or investment funds—that are unethical or morally ambiguous. Historically, some of the best-known (and most effective) divestments were in things like tobacco advertising or businesses that supported apartheid in South Africa. Today, fossil fuels fall squarely in the same morally questionable, high-risk category.

In total, the UC system sold a whopping one billion dollars (cue Dr. Evil) in fossil fuel assets from its pension, endowment, and working capital pools. It then invested that same amount in clean energy projects, making it the largest school in the U.S. to take the divest-invest plunge.

University of California Berkeley
“Berkeley Campus” by Erik Eckel is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Divesting from fossil fuels is a huge step forward in protecting our climate because it weakens the fossil fuel industry and accelerates investment in clean energy solutions.

But will divesting put their budgets at risk? Most higher ed institutions rely on their endowments to fund their operations, and, historically, it’s been profitable to invest in fossil fuels. Some schools, like Swarthmore College, have made explicit their worries about putting their asset performance at risk.

The short answer: Not for long. Most fossil fuel companies are a far cry from the attractive investments they used to be: they’re running on a moldy business model, would struggle to survive without the $400 billion in subsidies they receive every year, and have massive balance sheets chock full of assets that could very likely become stranded (i.e., not worth zilch). To put it bluntly, they’ve become risky investments.

Anna Olerinyova, a student at St. John’s College at Oxford, didn’t mince words about her school’s divestment decision: “The fact that the world’s top university is abandoning fossil fuels shows that the age of fossil fuels is rapidly coming to an end.” Now that wind and solar power are competitive with (and, in many markets, cheaper than) fossil fuels, renewable energy is a safer, more profitable long-term bet.

And the movement is snowballing. In the U.S., more than 50 universities have committed to divestment; worldwide, over 1,000 schools, insurance companies, pension funds, churches, hospitals, and other institutions—spanning 48 countries—had committed to fossil fuel divestment by the end of 2019.

Source: www.gofossilfree.org

Last November, hundreds of protesters swarmed the field of the annual Harvard-Yale football game to demand greater action on divestment. This might seem like small fry compared to the current state of our country. But it’s another sign that the times they are a changin’.

Learn more about how you can divest (starting with your own personal bank) by taking a crash course in divesting and using this handy list of the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

The divestment movement is breaking the hold that the fossil fuel industry has on our economy and our governments. By harnessing the power of the financial sector for good, it can be a huge tailwind in our transition to a clean energy future.

Originally published in the 6/3/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter