Empowering Utilities to Participate in the Clean-Energy Transition – Part 3

Part 3: Accelerating the Adoption of Advanced Mobility Solutions in Minnesota

This is the third blog in a three-part series. The first blog, Renewable Heating in Juneau, Alaska, is available here. The second blog, Aligning Energy Demand with Renewable Energy Production in Oregon, is available here.

One of the central challenges in transitioning to a more distributed and decarbonized energy grid is supporting utilities to actively engage and lead by example and innovation, rather than have them remain on the sidelines. This is the emphasis of a large portion of the work of Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI’s) Electricity program, and can be observed most directly at the institute’s annual Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) Accelerator event.

Of the 13 teams that came to Accelerator 2018 in Sundance, Utah, four were focused on innovations in utility business models and operating strategies. These teams—comprised of utility representatives, regulators, advocates, and government officials—illustrate the varied and knotty challenges utilities face as they experiment their way forward to the energy grid of the future.

Speeding the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is a central means to drive the decarbonization of the economy. The adoption of this technology varies considerably across the country, with the latest Energy Department data showing West Coast states and Hawaii with the highest adoption rates and Great Plains and Southern states further behind.

These distinctions aside, the need to break down barriers and shift perceptions and behaviors to accelerate the quicker adoption of EVs persists. And because Americans’ gas-guzzling personally owned vehicles sit unused 95 percent of the time, so too must we catalyze the growth of shared, electrified personal mobility systems. These are the so-called mobility as a service (MaaS) products such as carsharing and the services of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. MaaS will be necessary to attain the sustainability goals set by an increasing number of US states, cities, and corporations. Minnesota, for instance, is targeting a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The state’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has its own plan, including EV development, in support of that goal.

The Testing Smart Load Growth Through EV Readiness team at Accelerator sought to do just that, testing how to accelerate the penetration of EVs and the adoption of MaaS in Minnesota. A diverse team of community leaders, developers and building owners, utility regulatory leaders, environmental advocates, and user-centered researchers focused on defining what an ideal EV-ready environment looks like, key factors that should be tested, and metrics for measuring success. The success of this team in advancing mobility solutions has since led to the creation of RMI’s new Mobility Project Accelerator Workshops.

Switching to EVs and MaaS offerings like carsharing and TNCs is complex. Key questions at Sundance centered on what customer offerings and environmental factors can beneficially shape demand patterns to spur EV and MaaS adoption in the state. The team—composed of representatives from MnDOT, Xcel Energy, Center for Energy and Environment, ZEF Energy, Duval Companies, and Envoy There—sought to address this opportunity in an advanced energy district in Minnesota with carbon-reduction and resiliency goals.

The planned Rice Creek Commons development, north of Minneapolis, was identified as a testing ground for this strategy. The 427-acre site is planned to be the scene of a “vibrant, mixed-use community that serves as a catalyst for the rest of the region,” according to its website. The team believed that branding this development as an “ecodistrict” with a live-work-play ethos would provide a robust foundation for additional initiatives to encourage electric and shared mobility choices.

To encourage EV adoption, the team identified several approaches to consider implementing in the community. One was to separate payment for the housing unit and parking. Tenants would automatically receive MaaS credits from Rice Creek Commons unless they choose to opt out of MaaS credits and opt in to making an additional payment for a parking spot. Another approach, with the goal of normalizing MaaS, was to highlight community members for their choices, like “Amanda—Uses Carshare.” Another was to offer an EV carshare program—partnering with mobility companies like Envoy There—and other mobility options on site. Minnesota’s Department of Transportation also hopes to normalize adoption of EVs by increasing awareness of existing charging infrastructure by adding highway signs, similar to those for gas stations, alerting drivers that they may exit to charge; this effort will also help combat range anxiety.

Rice Creek’s developer is considering how best to pilot some of these ideas, and left Sundance believing that MaaS would be integrated into its vision for the Rice Creek development. Since the site is not yet under construction, the team planned to connect with other multifamily building developers further along in the project development cycle to see if they can collaborate on initial pilots to see what efforts are most feasible. With this approach, developers can help develop the most effective means to normalize and scale MaaS.

“Rice Creek Commons has the potential to take a leadership role and demonstrate what a successful EV community looks like,” Lynn Daniels, a manager at RMI and member of the Accelerator team, said. “Rice Creek Commons is engaging with community stakeholders to create a plan for how their community can normalize and incentivize the use of shared EVs and incorporate community history and values, creating a model for other developers to learn from and build upon.”

While Rice Creek Commons was identified as a potential site for these strategies, they were designed to be applicable to other locations—there are several ecodistricts across the United States that employ renewable energy and efficiency technologies, but not many models for efficiently integrating MaaS. Through its work at Accelerator, The Testing Smart Load Growth Through EV Readiness team is helping to change this dynamic, speeding the piloting and scaling of shared and electric personal mobility systems and services that reduce our dependence on oil, cost less, and are safer, healthier, and more accessible—all while emitting significantly less carbon.