Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are exploring how widespread use of electric vehicles in the future may impact vulnerable communities.
The work is funded by a new seed grant from the Resilient Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity Interdisciplinary Research Theme and is led by Assistant Professor Kyri Baker from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.
Mass adoption of electric vehicles could be a big step toward addressing climate change globally, as traditional engines are a big source of emissions. Bloomberg reported that “of the 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases produced by transportation in the U.S. in 2017, 59 percent of it came from passenger cars and light-duty trucks” alone. But electric vehicles also still currently require a significant amount of energy to operate. Charging a single electric vehicle can consume more energy than a house consumes in a whole day, Baker said. That kind of demand has implications for our power generation and distribution infrastructure that need to be addressed and planned for holistically.
At the same time, electric vehicles do not contribute to gasoline sales taxes, which support road maintenance and – potentially – construction of the new physical infrastructure like charging stations that will be needed to support them. That means those who can’t afford newer electric cars may be indirectly paying for infrastructure they aren’t using or see their utility bills rise as supply and demand dynamics shift with increased ownership. Baker said that even before the pandemic, the Energy Information Administration reported that 30 percent of households faced some sort of “energy insecurity,” such as forgoing food, living in uncomfortable temperatures, or have received disconnection notices. She added that roughly half of Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American households currently face energy insecurity.
“This project is a little different because it looks at those infrastructure requirements and what we need to reach some of these sustainability goals, but it also really explores how those choices will impact people on the ground,” she said. “That aspect of equity and inclusion is particularly important here and something we are excited to explore.”
Baker is working with Assistant Professor Cristina Torres-Machi and Associate Professor Amy Javernick-Will on this project along with postdoctoral researcher Constance Crozier and undergraduate architectural engineering student Liam Daniel.
Torres-Machi agreed that the social equity questions in the project were crucial and said the team would be looking at data on vehicle ownership, transportation modes and road conditions as well as household use and payment for those services.
“I am particularly interested at evaluating how these kinds of environmental initiatives (such as adopting electric vehicles) may negatively impact the condition of our transportation infrastructure and cause higher disparities in our communities,” she said.
The Interdisciplinary Research Theme, a collaborative research effort housed within the College of Engineering and Applied Science, is uniquely positioned to explore these kinds of issues. Formed in July 2020, it brings together researchers and expertise in disaster resilience, sustainable design and social justice from across the engineering college and broader CU Boulder campus. Altogether, there is potential for interaction in the IRT across many areas of study, including engineering, geological sciences, business, economics, law and public health. Such a combination is unprecedented and puts the group in a unique leadership position globally, as there is no current center that features all of these topics and has all of these centralized resources at its disposal, researchers said.
IRT Director Shideh Dashti said the project is a great example of the work that will be coming out of the center over the next few months.
“This grant combines sustainable design with social justice considerations, which was a top priority for us when developing the theme,” she said. “Kyri’s team is well-positioned to achieve their goals, and this work will prove useful in a variety of arenas in the very near future.”