Utah’s electric vehicle growth is a ‘hot topic.’ Here’s how agencies are coordinating its future

A Utah Transit Authority electric bus charges Friday at Salt Lake City Central Station. UTA will receive an additional 22 electric buses in Salt Lake County next year. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY – Jay Fox believes he was one of the first people to own an electric vehicle in New Jersey when he bought a Nissan Leaf in 2010.

However, the switch to electric wasn’t exactly a smooth transition. It received a tax credit, but that was really the only support available to electric vehicle owners just over a decade ago.

Today is a whole other story.

Fox, now executive director of the Utah Transit Authority, points out that “major government programs” are facilitating future electrification, such as assisting public transit agencies to purchase electric vehicles as infrastructure is slowly shifting to run a growing number of electric vehicles. Yet this growth is bound to create more new challenges than he experienced in 2010.

“We need to build a charging network for (more electric buses),” he adds. “We don’t want to do it alone.”

Of course, UTA is not alone in this. Dozens of cities and counties across the state are starting to look into electric vehicles, as well as state agencies, local businesses, and more. Power companies, state officials and engineers are also looking for ways to expand access for anyone looking to switch to electricity.

All of which inspired Fox and UTA to bring everyone together for an electric vehicle forum, which could be the first step in a massive electrification master plan to lead Utah transportation into a whole new era of travel. The event on Friday brought together state transportation officials, energy and environment experts, as well as government leaders, including keynote speeches by Utah Representative Blake Moore and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

With the electric expansion well underway, most of Friday’s message focused on how to coordinate its rise.

The case of the electric

Environmental groups have long pushed for electric vehicles as an alternative to gas vehicles, a major source of annual Utah emissions, according to state regulators. On a similar note, Daniel Mendoza, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, explains that there is a “staggering” difference in air quality simply by switching diesel buses to electric.

But there is “business sense” to switch buses from diesel to electric, says Hal Johnson, project development manager at UTA. He says the agency’s three electric buses are three to nearly four times more efficient than diesel buses when considering the energy required per mile. The three electric buses run what would equate to 15-20 miles per gallon, compared to 4.5-5.5 per gallon for diesel buses.

A Utah Transit Authority bus travels along Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights on Friday.  Also on Friday, UTA held a forum on transport electrification where it discussed its plans to move more towards electric vehicles in the future.
A Utah Transit Authority bus travels along Fort Union Boulevard in Cottonwood Heights on Friday. Also on Friday, UTA held a forum on transport electrification where it discussed its plans to move more towards electric vehicles in the future. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“When you start looking at combustion engines, you lose about 80% of your efficiency to just the heating and mechanics within the system,” he adds. “Electric propulsion is just more efficient.”

This is why UTA is aiming for an expansion of its bus fleet. Next year, he expects 22 new electric buses in Salt Lake County, which will be equipped with air quality monitors to participate in a year-old network that better tracks air quality in the county. The agency also plans to add around 200 more buses to its fleet over the next two decades, eventually replacing older buses when they retire.

This means UTA ​​is in the process of converting approximately 40% of its fleet to electric by 2040. The agency also has 11 electric buses with its upcoming Ogden Express project and 10 electric vans on demand.

The FrontRunner commuter train could also be electric by 2040. UTA’s long-term plans are for it to be electrified by around 2040, though those plans aren’t as robust in part because they will require new funding to make it happen, Johnson explained. He adds that the mechanics have helped improve all emissions from the locomotives since the service was launched in 2008 in the meantime.

These goals mirror many places, including the largest city in Utah. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, in a pre-recorded message reproduced at the event, pointed out that the city currently operates 71 electric vehicles in different branches of the city fleet. The city’s goal is for plug-in options to cover “most” of the sedans in its fleet by the end of 2023, examining electric options for other vehicles in the fleet as well as making public electric vehicle options more accessible.

“We want to make it easier for those who live, work and play in the capital to do their part in reducing emissions by easily driving and charging electric vehicles,” he said, adding that the city has installed 20 public charging points throughout the city. which are for free use within the parking time limits. “But we need to do even more to make it more convenient for people to load their cars.”

Regan Zane, director of Utah State University’s ASPIRE Research Center, also shared new technologies developed to allow larger fleets, from UTA buses to trailers to trains, to recharge without the need for a plug-in cable.

The center’s goal is to invent ways to integrate charging into parking facilities and streets, to reduce the size of batteries and help them last longer. This could also help expand the network to more rural communities.

“(It’s) becoming a hot topic,” he said. “It is certainly on the minds of many.”

The energy to feed it

Solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources are also seen as ways to increase electrical benefits, especially as new technologies seek to harness the enormous energy potential of various sources. As Mendenhall said, clean energy plus electric vehicles “will reduce overall carbon emissions and improve air quality.”

Work to harness these energies is ongoing; however, there is no timeline for its realization. Gregory Todd, who recently began working as Governor Spencer Cox’s new energy advisor at the Utah Office of Energy Development, and Laura Hanson, state planning coordinator, explained that Utah is supporting market demand for these new ones. technologies with respect to government regulations.

Cox’s administration has published a Utah Energy and Innovation Plan that seeks “accessibility, reliability, and sustainability” within the state’s energy system through a “series of commitments,” Hanson said. It could be renewable energy, but it could include fossil fuels to meet the state’s goal of having a more energy-independent grid.

With this collaboration, I am confident that we can do it.

–Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council

James Campbell, Rocky Mountain Power’s director of innovation and sustainability policy, said the company is still striving to meet its 2005 emissions target of nearly 75 percent by 2030 and nearly 100 percent. % by 2050. “Wind and solar construction in the near future, such as the upcoming Elektron Solar project, an 80 megawatt solar park northwest of Grantsville, Tooele County, due to open in 2023.

That said, he warned that more needs to be done to achieve any utility company’s primary goal, which is to “keep the lights on.”

“We will have to find other technologies,” he said. “So, right now, nuclear is the only zero-emission technology capable of delivering a base load combined with huge amounts of renewable energy with huge amounts of storage.”

Hydrogen is another possibility. A plan for the largest industrial green hydrogen production and storage facility near Delta in Millard County recently received a conditional pledge of more than $ 504 million in federal construction funding.

Working together for a future

About half a dozen individual plans or goals were discussed on Friday. All the ideas circulating about moving to cleaner technology have fueled the need for a forum, which Fox hopes will turn into a huge master plan for local, provincial and state agencies to use.

He wasn’t sure it would attract that much interest, but it attracted over 100 government employees or industry experts. Most seemed to agree that collaboration was necessary as the state begins to venture into the future.

“In my opinion, the key to this is collaboration, working together to achieve goals that are greater than anyone else if we work individually,” said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council. “And, in Utah, we have a really strong track record of that collaboration. … With this collaboration, I’m confident we can do it.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist covering general news, outdoor activities, history and sports for KSL.com. Previously he worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah, about Rochester, New York.

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