He said the region’s academic institutions, growing companies and energy sector can all help it become a model for infrastructure upgrades. One thing that Pennsylvania has a lot of – natural gas – could also play a role, something that environmental advocates say is counterintuitive to the purpose of electrification.
“Here in western Pennsylvania, the really exciting opportunity is sort of marrying our natural gas baseload resources with electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations,” Smith said. “That could be a really high-value opportunity for this region if we’re able to put the two things together.”
Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, charging electric vehicles with power from a non-renewable grid would diminish the environmental and health benefits associated with electrification.
Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment, said the Port Authority of Pittsburgh’s 25-year plan fell short of its goal to electrify its fleet because the plans relied on the use of gas buses. She noted that those plans were changed after more than a dozen groups sent the port authority a letter thanking it for its promise to have a zero-emission fleet by 2045 and urging it to commit to powering the fleet with renewable energy.
“If you’re going to electrify and try to get to zero emissions, you should make sure the sources of power are also clean,” Deemer told City & State.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh and the burgeoning electric vehicle industry, it’s not that simple.
Pennsylvania is among the largest energy producers in the country, trailing only Texas in natural gas production. Despite carbon emissions dropping due to natural gas taking the place of other fossil fuels, the state has a long way to go if it wants a renewable energy grid.
“We actually view natural gas as a very sustainable source of baseload energy here,” Smith said. “We have an all-the-above energy strategy and we think that natural gas actually is a critical piece of that puzzle.”
Colton Brown, an energy program specialist with DEP, said rural and urban communities alike face difficulties when it comes to accessibility to the new technology that powers electric vehicles.
“They’re certainly different struggles whether it’s a rural area or urban area,” said Brown. “Urban areas are much more likely to have issues with charging … there’s a much higher percentage of people that cannot charge where they park their vehicle overnight. But then the rural areas have issues with having charging somewhere nearby. So, we’re definitely thinking about all of those pieces and trying to ensure that everybody gains access to charging.”
PennDOT is currently developing a mobility plan to look at key destinations across the state and determine how electric vehicles remain safe during emergency responses, like major floods and snowstorms.
The state faces a lot of barriers as it looks to become a leader in electric vehicle infrastructure and development, but experts in the field say the federal funding boost should get the commonwealth’s network off the ground. Still, there may be more questions than answers when it comes to the state’s future in transportation.
Harrison Cann is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared.