As Pa. lawmakers evaluate the future of electric vehicles, this company is thinking strategically

‘It’s like an E-ZPass, but for charging,’ Bob Kacergis, chief commercial officer for Momentum Dynamics, said

By: - October 5, 2021 10:55 am

An electric Link Transit bus in Wenatchee, Washington, is outfitted with a Momentum Dynamics wireless charger. (photo provided)

Every two weeks, Alissa Burger runs a cord outside through a kitchen window to charge her car.

And as a renter living in Pittsburgh, she hasn’t seen a significant uptick in her electricity usage.

It’s that simple, Burger, who’s a policy manager for the Electrification Coalition, a bipartisan nonprofit that promotes the widespread deployment of electric vehicles, told the Senate Transportation Committee last week — comparing the process to charging a cell phone. 

Burger drives one of the more than 29,000 electric passenger cars registered in Pennsylvania as of 2020. And she’s one of several stakeholders working with Harrisburg lawmakers as they weigh legislation that would prioritize electric vehicles and investments in clean energy.

An electric ‘revolution’

Electric vehicles, or EVs, make up a fraction of the more than 12 million cars in the state, but their numbers have doubled since December 2017

Pennsylvania is experiencing an electric “revolution,” Burger said, and it needs infrastructure to support continued growth.

With the Build Back Better Agenda and Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the Biden administration has proposed significant investments in green infrastructure and jobs, including the goal that half of all new cars sold in 2030 will be electric.

In September, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced the “Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan 2021,” which calls for statewide action on climate change. It also prioritizes increasing the use of EVs. Legislation proposed by Republicans in the House and Senate also supports green initiatives, lowering emissions, and directing utility providers to develop infrastructure to support clean energy.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, speaks during a September hearing on electric vehicles and possible reform. (Screenshot)

“This is the future, and I think we need to get ahead of this from a commonwealth perspective and realizing the potential this has to bring jobs and economic growth to our region,” Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, said.

Though he’s critical of the Wolf administration’s push to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which means electricity generators have to pay for the carbon they release into the atmosphere, and other green initiatives, Langerholc supports investments that promote vehicle electrification. 

He’s also introduced a series of bills that would reform Pennsylvania’s emissions program, an inspection program Langerholc says is outdated.

Existing legislative proposals are a starting point, Burger said. 

But when it comes to planning for the future, she said it’s “paramount” that the General Assembly pass bills that empower the Public Utility Commission, which regulates utility services, to approve transportation electrification planning from investor-owned utilities. Investment in proactive planning and studies will address concerns with the grid and assess what communities might need additional infrastructure as electrification policies are adopted, Burger said.

There are about 110,000 electric vehicle chargers, the EV equivalent of gas pumps, in the United States. That number, however, needs to be at least five to 10 times as big to achieve Biden’s 2030 goal, the New York Times reported. Experts estimate the cost to build those charging stations will add up to tens of billions of dollars, which is more than the $7.5 billion set aside for the president’s infrastructure proposal.

In June, the state Department of Environmental Protection announced the installation of 1,000 EV chargers, bringing the statewide total to more than 1,600 public Level 2 chargers, which use 240 volts, at more than 800 locations throughout the state.

“We have a lot of private fleets that are very interested, big-name companies — Amazon, FedEx, the list goes on — that are looking to electrify their fleet,” Burger said. “I would say that if Pennsylvania wants to continue to attract those investment dollars, we want to be able to invest in charging infrastructure.”

Open to change but not overnight

Though not opposed to electrifying fleets or legislation that would promote EV purchases, Rebecca Oyler, president, and chief executive officer for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said there are several ways to reduce emissions in the trucking industry. She added that as newer models replace heavy-duty trucks, pollution generated by them goes down.

“But the biggest benefits are achieved when policymakers let market efficiencies determine the best solutions, rather than picking winners and losers,” she said. “Choices must be made thoughtfully to ensure that policies deliver results and not just costs with few corresponding benefits.”

Rebecca Oyler, president and chief executive officer for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, testifies during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on Sept. 23, 2021. (screenshot)

Electrification in trucking is an option, “one that’s particularly promising in the short term in some sectors of the industry, particularly in local delivery fleets,” she said. But financial and structural challenges remain. She added that trucking companies would have to adjust practices and hire additional drivers per vehicle to accommodate charging time while efficiently using time.

“It’s best not to push mandates on trucks and trucking technology before the technology is ready because that will increase costs across the board,” Oyler said. “It’s not necessarily going to have the impact on the environment that we all hope it will, but it will increase cost.”

The state Department of Transportation relies on Pennsylvania’s gas tax for the majority of its funds, and as more drivers transition to electric vehicles, officials are expecting a decline in that revenue. PennDOT is already seeing an impact, Melissa Batula, the agency’s executive deputy secretary, told the Senate panel.

Ford expects 40 percent of its sales to be EVs by 2030, and General Motors said it was committed to an all-electric future by 2035.

“When you start seeing the Mustang and the F150 having electric options, obviously, this is what the trends are leaning overall,” Batula said, adding that while EVs drive down costs for consumers, they contribute to a decline in PennDOT funds.

As a possible solution, Langerholc has proposed the “Drive Smart Act,” reforms and investments, including a 5-year pilot program for EV drivers to pay a mileage-based user fee, $0.03 per mile, or opt-out and pay an annual fee of $400. PennDOT supports this measure, Batula said.

“We rely heavily on that gas tax, and even more so than our neighboring states do to fund our transportation, and really, all users of the transportation system — not just those driving gas vehicles — are responsible for paying for the upkeep of the system,” she said.

‘An E-Z Pass for charging’

Chester County-based Momentum Dynamics is working to ease the transition to heavy-duty electric vehicles, especially by prioritizing convenience when thinking about fleets and public transportation.

The company manufacturers EV charging stations, but they don’t look like the typical plug-in stations drivers might see in gas station parking lots or parking garages.

Momentum Dynamics has installed three charging pads at the Columbia Bus Station in Wenatchee, Washington. Electric buses drive over the high-powered wireless pads to recharge. (photo provided).

Momentum devices are wireless and stationed to the ground — no wires or plugs, just blue paint to make them visible. When an outfitted vehicle parks on top, electricity transfers between charging pads located on the concrete and underneath the car. They last for about 12 years, and drivers also don’t have to leave the car to charge.

“There’s no app. There’s no login. The identification of the vehicle, the alignment with the vehicle, and the authorization to charge is all background automatic,” Bob Kacergis, chief commercial officer for Momentum, told the Capital-Star. 

He added: “It’s like an E-ZPass, but for charging.”

With devices in Europe and the United States, Momentum is targeting commercial fleets as EV initiatives become more common. Martha’s Vineyard’s bus fleet reached 50 percent electric in June. The Vineyard Transit Authority installed a solar and battery storage array to ensure continued service if the island’s grid goes down. 

Momentum also helps power electric buses used by the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, IndyGo. The company also has chargers in Washington, which reports more electric buses than any other state except California. 

By executive order, California committed itself to achieve 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030 and 250,000 EV charging stations by 2025. Momentum is currently working with the Solano Transportation Authority in California to develop a network of chargers to serve multiple transit agencies in the northern Bay Area of San Francisco.

“If you follow EV, you know everyone complains about building infrastructure, and nobody comes,” Kacergis said. “We’re actually building infrastructure that has high utilization because we’re starting with commercial customers who need the chargers to run their fleets.”

Momentum chargers are strategically placed at rest stops or bus terminals, places where drivers will stop to take a break or unload and load passengers.

“Instead of charging every vehicle all at the same time overnight in a depot, we’re just doing a little bit here and there, scattered throughout the day,” Kacergis said. “From a grid perspective, it’s a much more orderly growth of demand, growth of infrastructure.”

While the company is focused on commercial fleets right now, consumers aren’t out of the question, Kacergis said — adding that Momentum supports any legislation that would reinforce or accelerate electrification.

“We actually think you have to have intelligent thinking and design about making sure you’re putting things in place,” Kacergis said. “I think a lot of the consumer infrastructure chargers that went in early were: ‘Hey, there’s grant money available. Let’s go build it because there’s money.’ We are focusing on fleets, so … I’m not going to build it just because there’s a subsidy. I’m going to build it because there’s an economic value to somebody who will buy that next after that subsidized unit.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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