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Electric Transportation: The Future is Now

Thomas Kuhn Edison Electric Institute
March 04, 2014
Electricity is playing a more important role in both on-road and non-road transportation, and that’s an energizing development for us all.
But it’s electricity’s role in powering various other transportation applications that’s rarely discussed. The good news, though, is that the conversation is finally changing.

When we think about electric transportation today, we usually think about the new and exciting electric cars that are transforming the vehicle marketplace. From their thrilling acceleration and the convenience of home fueling, to their clean, economical, and domestically powered use of electricity, plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are charging forward.

When you plug into the electric power grid, you are engaging with a diverse range of energy resources, including coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables like wind, water, and the sun. The fuel mix varies by region, depending on what’s affordable and what’s available. Having a diverse and flexible fuel mix also provides more stability and less price volatility, important factors in energy consumption.

Looking at the transportation sector, light-duty vehicles are far and away the biggest single energy user, making up about 60 percent of the share. While electric vehicles are still relatively new to the automotive market—the modern electric vehicle age is just entering its fourth year—the sales numbers are beginning to show real promise. PEV sales grew dramatically in 2013, up more than 80 percent from 2012. Last year, nearly 100,000 PEVs were sold in the U.S., and there are now more than 170,000 PEVs on the road. Additional new PEV models will enter the market this year, joining the 16 models already for sale.


PEV drivers love their cars, and the enthusiasm among that community is an important part of expanding this market. In fact, as an electric vehicle driver myself, I can personally attest that these cars are terrific. I’ve owned two PEVs now, and every morning when I get into my car, I feel like I’m taking a drive into the future. The appeal is emotional and rational—these cars have outstanding driving performance and quiet operation, but they are also cheaper to fuel, reduce emissions, and make our country more energy secure.

More Than Just Cars

Electric cars get a lot of attention, but transportation electrification has great potential in a wide range of commercial on-road and non-road transportation applications, as well. For things that need to be moved, shipped, lifted, or transported, there is a good chance that electricity can power them better. Two areas in particular are worth highlighting: Commercial fleets and seaports.

Many commercial customers are electrifying their fleets to achieve fuel-cost savings, lower maintenance costs, and environmental benefits. Electric delivery trucks, vans, lift-trucks, buses, and work vehicles are providing companies with major returns on investment in terms of fuel savings and environmental benefits. New fuel efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles will provide additional incentive to transition these larger vehicles to more efficient technologies including electric drive.

In my industry, electric companies are demonstrating their commitment to this technology by expanding their own electric fleets. Electrified utility vehicles improve our companies’ operations by providing customers and employees with quieter, cleaner work sites. In the future, exportable power and vehicle-to-grid technologies could allow these vehicles to serve as mobile generators and boost the electric grid when needed.

Ports across the country—from Savannah to Houston to Long Beach and Los Angeles—are transforming how they power ships and equipment and move goods by embracing electricity. Electricity is beginning to power ship-to-shore cranes, smaller rubber-tired gantry cranes, trucks and trains that move containers within ports, and even the ships. New shore power systems allow ships to shut down diesel auxiliary engines and plug into the shore-side electrical system. Electrification at ports lowers fuel costs and dramatically reduces emissions, allowing these facilities to achieve both economic and environmental goals.

Other electric transportation applications include: locomotives, lift trucks, airport ground support equipment, and overland conveyors for mining transport.

Transportation electrification is exciting and yields significant benefits. Indeed, electricity is beginning to transform the transportation sector, just as it has revolutionized so many other sectors of our economy. For the electric power industry, transportation electrification helps maximize the existing and future electric system while affording us the opportunity to help customers address transportation needs cost-effectively and sustainably.

Electrification provides our society with an opportunity to make a major part of our economy cleaner, more efficient, and more energy secure. And, electricity gives “running on E” a whole new meaning!

Thomas Kuhn is President of the Edison Electric Institute and a member of the ecomagination advisory board. 

Electric Transportation: The Future is Now was originally published on Ideas Lab

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