RMI: Accelerating the Adoption of Advanced Mobility Solutions in Minnesota

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

By Todd Zeranski, Heather House, and David Labrador

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.

Project Objective:

  • Define 1-2 pilot concepts and outline why it is worth testing
  • Develop work plan for post-accelerator
    Potential barriers
Team Members
    • Megan Hoye, Engagement Manager, Center for Energy and Environment
    • Aakash Chandarana, Regional VP of Rates and Regulatory Affairs Xcel Energy
    • Alex Duval, Principal, Duval Companies
    • Matthew Blackler, ZEF Energy
    • Timothy Sexton, Director of Transit and Active Transportation, MN DOT
    • Paul Hernandez, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations, Envoy There
    • Lynn Daniels, Manager, RMI

Electric vehicle (EV) penetration is slowly increasing in Minnesota due to naturally occurring market forces, but what customer offerings and environmental factors can beneficially shape load and speed conversion to EVs? Exploring this question will help Minnesota utilities, communities, and policy makers understand the ratepayer and carbon reduction value of vehicle electrification efforts and investments. This question can be tested in a number of near-term advanced energy districts with carbon or resiliency goals. Here a suite of enhanced EV readiness factors such as customer engagement, education offerings, advanced infrastructure, and innovative ownership structures can be tested. The value of this environment can then be compared to business as usual penetration rates and the extent to which customers engage more quickly and persistently with programs, rates, and customer communications. These sites become ideal environments for studying the limitations to shaping EV load growth and allows for dynamic learning and iterative utility pilots. eLab will provide the necessary opportunity to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to define what an ideal EV ready environment looks like, key factors that should be tested, and metrics for measuring success. Community leaders, developers, building owners/anchor tenants, utility regulatory leaders, environmental advocates, and user-centered researchers will provide a balance of leaders and “doers” to turn this work into tangible testing and piloting in Minnesota.

Background information for Rice Creek Commons can be found at (http://ricecreekcommons.com/energy/), along with opportunities for electric vehicle demonstrations and other innovative energy technologies and customer engagement.

Announcing RMI’s New Mobility Problem-Solving Accelerator Workshops

It’s an exciting time for electric vehicles (EVs). As the number of models increase and the prices decrease, it seems that pretty soon there will be an EV for all needs at an affordable price. And between the Volkswagen settlement (which includes some money for electric vehicle charging infrastructure) and many other regional initiatives, more than $2.5 billion in investment in publicly accessible charging is going to be built. However, as with other major technology transitions, although many pieces of the puzzle are clearly coming together, some vital pieces remain lagging. The EV revolution still faces many barriers, which are predominantly local and quite diverse in nature.

Rocky Mountain Institute’s Accelerator workshops are designed to overcome those barriers. Instead of starting at the conceptual top of the problem, assessing impacts and trying to get visible players to commit to doing something, workshops start at the bottom, leveraging local efforts to take concrete action on a particular opportunity. In October, RMI’s Mobility Transformation practice successfully launched the first Mobility Project Accelerator Workshop. This event brought together teams of stakeholders from the midcontinent region to tackle local, specific challenges to electrifying the transportation sector.

Many questions remain for people looking to go electric for personal or commercial use. People wonder when to buy an EV since prices keep dropping, how long financing support will be available, how to charge an EV, what the electricity will cost, if the grid will be able to handle the new demand, if they will need to change their driving habits, and more. It’s hard to answer all these questions on a local basis, with limited access to data and expertise, even though that is where buying and using EVs happens. Complicated challenges like this require that all the stakeholders necessary to build solutions come together to work collaboratively to understand what underlies barriers, generate possible solutions, and develop a path to move the project forward.

This need for stakeholder collaboration is why we test drove our proven RMI Accelerator Approach in the EV space, tackling key questions and business model development for specific transportation electrification projects. The Midcontinent Transportation Electrification Collaborative (M-TEC) teamed up with us to offer the RMI–M-TEC EV-Grid Project Accelerator, a three-day event held in northern Michigan that combined group learning, facilitator-supported work in project teams, and special cross-cutting insight sessions led by experts in the field.

We selected the upper Midwest for our test drive since it’s the backyard of the American automotive industry, and utilities and governments have expressed a willingness to help the local industry remain competitive during the upcoming transition to vehicle electrification. The upper Midwest is the place where the motivation to electrify does not dominate decision making, as it does in California, where pollution abatement and strong agreement on acting on climate have created a significant leadership role. It is the place where real business cases can and must be created, and competition from traditionally fueled motors and ideas is strong. According to Brendan Jordan, vice president of the Great Plains Institute, “This is a time of experimentation in the Midcontinent region—many utilities are exploring the best ways to serve their customers through EV programs, but we don’t know yet what the best models are. The Accelerator event is a great way to develop new program concepts that can then be replicated.”

RMI has developed a list of key transportation electrification and new mobility implementation problems/opportunities to tackle with our Accelerators. We have built this list based on years of work, starting back in 2009 with Project Get Ready (which benchmarked early city-led activities and charger installation best practices), all the way to today with the North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s (NACFE’s) ongoing series of electric truck reports and our intensive work on mobility projects with Austin, Denver, India, Saint Lucia, and Southern China. The list includes topics such as municipal, shuttle, and school bus systems and charging; design and location of multimodal hubs, including those offering shared ride services and clean micro-transit (scooters, bikes, and electrified two- and three- wheelers); design and execution of fast-charging networks in cities, suburbs, and highway corridors; charging solutions for those without garages, including multifamily housing, entire disadvantaged neighborhoods, and retail and office sites; approaches to delivery fleet electrification and management; rate structures and grid strategies for fast charging; and realizing benefits through managing the charging draw on the grid.

The three teams selected for the first Mobility Project Accelerator Workshop are working on EV school buses, EV charging at multi-dwelling units, and corridor fast charging, which are challenges throughout the region and the country. Each project made substantive progress in a very short time, including the RMI-led efforts prior to the event to effectively shape team membership to include the perspectives and knowledge necessary to find a solution. Team members had a chance to learn from each other, members of other teams, and the diverse set of event faculty members from across the United States.

“At these RMI Accelerators, in three days, you learn more and make more meaningful connections than you do in an entire year,” said Matthew Blackler, CEO of ZEF Energy. “It always results in a considered plan. There is no other opportunity to spend three focused days with a project team and use the time so well.” Another participant, Paul Gruber, manager of product and business development at Consumers Energy, added, “Facilitation by RMI, M-TEC, and invited clean energy experts enabled us to prepare our most robust understanding to date of the key barriers and opportunities for EV charging at multi-dwelling units.”

What’s Next?

We plan to scale up the Accelerator platform in mobility and its electrification to support more teams, in more geographies, on more topics. And as we repeat with multiple teams on similar topics, we can further scale impact by recognizing patterns and common learning and spreading the word to others who cannot get to an Accelerator or potentially do not even have a team yet. We are shaping conversations with other leading players—philanthropists, other NGOs, and key cities—on the best path forward. We’re focusing on two primary approaches:

1) An annual national event with up to a dozen selected teams focusing on multiple topics. This model functions just like RMI’s original electricity system–focused eLab Accelerator, which is thriving after more than five years of successful workshops.

2) One or two annual regional or even metropolitan area events, held in different places every year, likely with a more focused topic set relevant to the challenges faced by that geography.

We have also started doing custom events on grid-charging issues for specific companies or groups on more focused topics. We plan to keep this platform in place even as the issues needing resolution evolve. In 2019, we will target more issues and opportunities that we capture from across RMI’s global mobility activities, from swappable motorcycle batteries in India to artificial intelligence-driven charger-system planning in China to e-bus systems in cities around the world. We encourage those with interest or ideas to help shape the best approach to our mobility challenges to contact us with suggestions. We look forward to shaping the new mobility future with you.