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2021, Nov. 18

The Electric Vehicle Economy: A Promise of Jobs and a Cleaner Future

Sustainable, equitable communities are made possible through the dissemination of transformative tools and information that expands resources and opportunities. At Kaiju, we believe in the process of sharing -- disseminating -- actionable tactics and tools that boost economic and social prosperity. Here we explore grassroots and institutional efforts to foster more opportunities for historically under-resourced communities to experience sustainable growth, resiliency, and prosperous futures.

The electric vehicle (EV) movement in the U.S. is advancing across diverse sectors, from government pilot programs to corporate initiatives to public-private partnerships. But there’s more in it for Americans than a better environment, including jobs, lower transportation costs, and the potential for an expanded public transit grid. The future is moving in fast.

This may hold promise for underserved populations that have been ravaged by job loss during the Covid-19 pandemic and fossil fuel pollution spanning decades. A number of EV initiatives are taking on these intertwined blights.

It’s important to understand the problem first.

Even as the economy bounces back to life, Black Americans are nearly two times as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. What’s more, the nation’s lowest-paying industries accounted for 30% of all jobs but 56% of the jobs lost in that period, according to the analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

On the environmental end, studies have found that fossil fuel pollution impacts Blacks at a higher rate than whites. Data gathered in Washington State by the National Equity Atlas, for example, found a significant racial divide. Analysts used a pollution exposure index that measures escalating impact from one to 100. Whites scored 57 while Blacks came in at 81. Among the culprits: factories and diesel-spewing buses. There’s more: the high cost of gas for these public buses has led to skyrocketing fares and stagnant mass transit grids.

Projects aimed at a turnaround have begun: The city of Charlotte, North Carolina began swapping out gas-powered public buses for new battery-electric buses this year. Charlotte was one of 21 cities to produce a winning proposal in the American Cities Climate Challenge. The e-bus pilot program is funded by philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District added a dozen electric school buses to its fleet, part of a clean energy pilot program funded by federal grants and the state of California.

On the business side, American transportation companies are moving into the EV sector, albeit a bit later than other nations. Asia and Europe have produced electric mass-transit buses by the tens of thousands over the last two decades. North American production, however, is projected to lead the globe within 10 to 15 years, according to multiple predictions.

Some companies are already hitting the big time. California-based Proterra has 1,000 of its ZX5 Electric Transit Bus models on the roads in the U.S. and Canada. With a $1.6 billion valuation, the company is expected to go public in the next year.

The Verge Weekly recently profiled Proterra:

The Biden Administration’s plan to make all new American-built buses operate with zero emissions by 2030 is seen to be a huge asset to Proterra and other U.S. e-bus manufacturers, allowing for access to critical resources to electrify transportation and drive domestic sales.

The Biden Administration has indeed seized the twin opportunities of job creation and environmental mitigation. In early November, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced it has awarded $199  million to fund 25 projects aimed at putting cleaner vehicles on the roads. The sustainable energy economy is in high growth, supporting three million jobs with 10% growth predicted in 2021.

Social policy experts say job creation is not enough. In a paper for the Center for Law and Social Policy, analysts write that a national public-private initiative is needed, one that creates paid work and job-training opportunities for those in the low-income and poverty brackets. (The federal government considers a household making less than $40,000 a year to be low income. Households making less than $26,000 annually are considered impoverished.) Center analysts suggest that the green energy economy could offer a way out of long-term economic hardship:

After the most economically devastating year since the Great Depression, workers and families are still far from a pre-pandemic normal. Unfortunately, that pre-pandemic normal included 50 million workers earning poverty wages. Moreover, communities that have been marginalised have long faced inequities in hiring, wages, and unemployment.

Ambitious public-private partnerships in the EV space are popping up in unexpected places.

Among the bigger endeavors is a public-private partnership between Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the City of Baltimore, the Baltimore-Washington Airport Authority, and the ride-hailing company, Lyft. The initiative is putting existing EV car models at one of the most traffic-choked hubs in the region. It’s an effort to turn the tide.

On the agenda: a rideshare program of 100 EVs that will ferry travelers to and from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport; new EV fast-chargers on site, with a goal of 500 by 2023; and a program to fund the introduction of EVs into Lyft’s greater Baltimore operation. The partnership is part of BGE’s EVsmart Program, which also provides utility customers with rebates, tools, and information they need to go electric.

At Lyft, we've committed to reaching 100% electric vehicles on the network by 2030 and partnerships like this one with BGE will help propel us toward our goal," said Jon Walker, Sustainability Policy Manager, Lyft. "EVs have the potential to make a transformational impact on society and the environment and we're uniquely positioned to help ensure that their benefits are distributed equitably — especially as nearly half of Lyft rides start or end in historically underserved communities."

In September, Ford pledged to build an EV plant, which will be the biggest factory ever constructed in Tennessee. With two EV battery parks planned for neighboring Kentucky, Ford’s total investment tops $11 billion and is expected to create 11,000 new jobs. Called Blue Oval City, the plant would cover a 6-square-mile area and build next-generation electric pickup trucks beginning in 2025.

"This is our moment - our biggest investment ever - to help build a better future for America," Jim Farley, Ford's president and chief executive, said in a statement. "We are moving now to deliver breakthrough electric vehicles for the many rather than the few."

The Financial Times noted that we’ve turned something of a blind corner into the EV era. It matured like a hothouse flower while the pandemic had the bully pulpit:

Every now and then, a slow-burning shift in the way the world works suddenly starts to gather pace at a rapid rate. That is what is happening with electric vehicles. In a relatively short space of time, the transformation in the auto industry has gone from first gear to fifth.

In the article, Andy Palmer, CEO of electric bus company Switch Mobility, says the business and investment world had better jump on the (electric) train fast:

“It’s that seismic,” he said. “It changes everything, and to such an extent that any players that don’t pivot fast enough, that don’t invest, are unlikely to survive into the future.”

Photo by Michael Marais on Unsplash

Amy Alexander's reporting and commentary on demographics, cultural politics, and the innovation economy has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, and other outlets. She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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