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New electric mobility

Surging green energy generation is creating surpluses, in turn supporting the rise of electric transport

Marvin Mulkey ditched his Ford Escort Wagon about five years ago, and now employs a 100% EV to drive for both Uber and Lyft in Portland, Oregon. "I decided to stick it to the Saudis, so that's why I bought this Leaf," he says. Mulkey's vanity licence plate is a playful twist on the words zero oil. On a single charge, he says his Nissan Leaf can run about two trips to the airport or about 10 downtown. It's a shorter range than an internal-combustion engine (Ice) can offer, but Mulkey has an edge. Courtesy of the local utility, Portland Gas and Electric, he can charge up his Leaf in about 30 minutes—for free. "There's a real camaraderie down here, at The Plug," Mulkey adds, as Teslas and Bolts line up at Portland's Electric Avenue. Increasingly in the US, electric-vehicle charging is ubiquitous and cheap. Often, it's free.

Oil, it has long been assumed, enjoys the advantage of incumbency—100 years of investment in pipelines, refineries, engines, and filling stations. So oil producers have consoled themselves, with the support of energy physicists, arguing that the substitutability problem will make petrol the preferred fuel in transport for decades yet.

But that was before the accelerated buildout of solar and wind yielded surplus electricity. EV owners in places like Texas can now charge their cars overnight for free, as the state utility TXU grapples with excess power from wind, which last year met over 15% of the state's total power needs. It's even higher this year, sometimes cresting close to 20%.

Amazon, Facebook, and Google made the trek to regions like the Pacific Northwest about seven years ago, seeking cheap electricity for their hungry data centres. Back then, hydropower drove the electricity arbitrage and the tech giants erected aeroplane-hangar-like structures along the Columbia River. But last year, wind and power generated over 16% of Oregon's electricity. New electricity, often in surplus, is now showing up in the Midwest, Southwest and California. It's also starting to enter the transport sector.

The transition from oil to electricity is akin to America's rapid adoption of natural gas over the past decade. Although gas prices dropped beneath those for oil on an energy-content basis, infrastructure wasn't in place to exploit the difference. Changes were incremental—but have now become significant. The replacement of oil-heating, especially in eastern states, and conversion of municipal buses and government car fleets to natural gas has cut oil's market share of total US energy demand from 40% to 37% over the past 10 years. Natural gas's share rose from 22% to over 29%. Electricity, starting from a small base, is starting to do the same. Proterra, an electric-bus maker based in Silicon Valley, recently signed the largest order ever to supply units to King County Transit in Seattle. Electric buses were just an idea—until they weren't.


More broadly, the US is steadily guiding oil-based transportation demand over to the electrical system through subways, commuter rail, streetcars, and now electric buses. Tying all these systems together is a company like Moovel, the Daimler-funded project that's probing for future trends in mobility. Moovel gathers data for its commuter-facing smartphone app, but also works with transit agencies from Chicago to Baltimore to upgrade tech hardware, making payments and travel smoother, and faster.

Mac Brown, vice-president of sales at Moovel's base in Portland, says its new product, Moovel Fare Connect, "is a kind of software development kit that takes all these legacy devices in a transit system—gates, turnstiles, card readers, fare-box poles—and makes them aware of new technologies", Moovel helps to introduce quick-response, or QR, code readers so commuters can pay with their smartphone and near-field communication, or NFC, capability to widen communications between phones and gates. "Our goal is to reduce what we call dwell time," says Brown. That's the pause, sometimes lengthy, that can still show up as users wait for their devices to validate fare.

11% - Rise in US passenger rail use since 2010

Transit apps are important because Americans tend to see a single trip that uses a subway, bus, and then a bike-share or subscription-car service as a hassle. Moovel, along with other apps like Transit, algorithmically pairs all transport options together to get a traveller well beyond the fixed network of, say, commuter rail. In short, apps like Moovel enable a kind of range extension to existing transit infrastructure. Eager to beef up their bus and train services, cities want to connect every transport service possible, from new taxi firms like Uber and Lyft to car-sharing services like Car2Go (another Moovel product). Consumers are voting with their feet: ridership on heavy, commuter, and light rail is up 11% since 2010, according to the American Public Transport Association.

How much surplus power is available for this? California was already curtailing excess solar power in April, before summer had even arrived. Time-of-day rate plans offered by utility companies have not yet shifted to reflect the solar surplus from midday sun. But that's coming, especially as EV drivers start plugging their cars after reaching the office. Texas has already shifted rates to reflect typical overnight surpluses of wind—so California is certain to do the same for the daytime solar surge.

This solar surplus should drive more EV adoption. Brendan Pierpont, a consultant with the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) in Portland, predicts that California, where the first big rollout of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is likely, "will trigger a forcing of new EVs into the market". EV-rich Palo Alto, he notes, is "already hitting the local grid so hard with charging demand" that the local utility is looking to upgrade the system.

But much dust needs to settle, especially as services like Uber and Lyft penetrate personal transportation. A 2017 report on New York City transit trends by Schaller Consulting showed that these services had depressed ridership on public transit over the past three years. Future oil demand might also depend on what kind of AVs emerge. If tomorrow's AVs are largely electric—which seems likely given the speed of EV-technology improvements—then a fast AV rollout would interact symbiotically with renewable-power generation, soaking up solar surpluses, and sending a signal to build much more power capacity.

This article is part of a report series on Electric vehicles. Next article: Electric vehicles—if you build it...

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