By Robbie Astrop and Greg Gustafson
Electric vehicles (EVs) and the charging stations needed for them to operate have led to increased infrastructure needs on college campuses. The demand for electromobility, or e-mobility, is growing quickly, and higher education institutions across the country are considering sizable EV infrastructure expansions. More than 10 million electric cars are on the road across the world—and the number is projected to reach 30 million by 2030.
Providing the infrastructure to power these vehicles will require massive upgrades. Universities can get ahead of the curve by putting comprehensive EV infrastructure into place to support the needs of students, faculty, and visitors. Such upgrades will enable schools to meet the demand for e-mobility solutions while reducing their carbon footprint and enhancing campus sustainability.
Students and sustainability
Sustainability is a high priority for most college students. UNESCO reports that 91% of students “agree that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development.” A 2019 Princeton Review survey of nearly 12,000 college applicants found that 64% considered a school’s environmental commitment when deciding where to attend. For these eco-conscious students, requests for sustainable development go far beyond a recycling program or water conservation. A long-term sustainability plan that includes e-mobility offerings and other green initiatives will be key in enforcing the message that an institution’s commitment to the environment is here to stay.
Strong sustainability commitments can be a valuable tool for universities as they recruit prospective students. Schools that develop an e-mobility plan demonstrate that commitment to eco-friendly practices and enhance their reputation for environmental consciousness. That can lead to increased student enrollment and retention. Sustainable operations can also aid in attracting top faculty talent; one study found that 90% of millennials and 77% of baby boomers report that working for a sustainable employer is a top priority.
Planning an Electrification Strategy
Taking a closer look at carbon reduction plans and identifying clear sustainability goals is the first step toward creating an effective e-mobility infrastructure. After project goals are highlighted, a thorough site survey can be conducted, and next steps can be determined.
Many universities may be operating under systems that are decades (and even centuries) old, so it can be difficult to introduce new functions and enhancements to a traditional campus structure. A knowledgeable e-mobility partner can serve as a change agent to help communicate with campus decision makers and help alleviate any internal tension.
Asking critical questions can help define the scale of a campus e-mobility plan. What chargers best fit a school’s specific needs? How many chargers are optimal? What power grid connections are required? These solutions could be public facing, limited to staff and students only, or focused on internal fleets and shuttles operated by the university.
Depending on a school’s goals, a plan may call for environmentally friendly power solutions tailored to a campus’s infrastructure, like integrated energy storage, renewable energy power solutions, and microgrid solutions. Rooftop solar panels, fuel cells, and other alternative energy solutions can all exist on a microgrid with battery technology to keep everyone moving with little to no environmental impact.
E-mobility Beyond Chargers
If projections are accurate, more and more EVs will be on the roads in the next few years. A recent study by EY found that 41% of consumers stated their next vehicle purchase would be a plug-in hybrid EV or a battery EV, supporting the belief that chargers will become not just a nice-to-have amenity, but a necessity. Some states even aim to phase out combustion vehicles completely, such as California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order requiring all new vehicles to be zero-emission starting in 2035.
Universities may decide to look beyond EV charger installations and consider an even greater expansion of their e-mobility offerings. Emissions from school transportation equipment account for a significant portion of the overall carbon footprint at many university campuses. Considering a transition to electric buses alone can play a huge part in reducing overall pollution.
Defined routes and consistent mileage make electric buses an ideal option for campus transportation. The primary impediment to EV proliferation has to do with “range anxiety”—the fear that a vehicle will run out of power before it gets to its destination. Discrete, defined routes for EVs alleviate that anxiety because the range is known. At Columbia University, a switch to electric buses is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the university shuttle by over 270 metric tons—a 70% reduction from the diesel-powered shuttle buses that were being used. In addition to significantly reduced emissions and noise pollution, electric buses also can offer sizable savings when it comes to fuel and maintenance expenses.
Many campuses across the country caught a glimpse of the power of battery-powered transportation after the rise of electric scooters took college towns by storm in 2018. Encouraging the use of e-bikes and electric scooters through the installation of designated riding areas can help enhance the environmental impact of an e-mobility transit system.
Routes to funding
As college campuses consider an EV expansion (or first-time installation), administrators may worry that the costs will exceed established budgets. But a school can afford—and even profit from—e-mobility solutions in multiple ways. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (https://afdc.energy.gov/laws) has information about many incentive programs that may be available to education institutions. In addition, some states are considering legislation that will require their public universities to purchase only electric vehicles in their fleets in the coming year and will offer funding programs to meet that need.
Today, higher education decision makers can take advantage of a variety of financial incentives from local, state and federal sources to support campus transportation electrification efforts. As schools consider campus electrification financing options, they also should look at possible revenue opportunities. Electric vehicle service equipment can be installed in campus parking spaces and garages, and campuses can offer pay-to-charge options for users. Universities also can charge students and staff an upfront EV charging fee as part of an annual parking pass purchase. RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology can be used to enable a form of contactless payment—a card can be waved in front of a charger to process a transaction.
Increasing student desire for sustainable transportation also may play a key role in financially supporting electrification initiatives. In the 2017-18, the University of California at Irvine became the first campus in the United States to convert to an all-electric bus fleet. Students voted for this initiative, and they are paying for it with a quarterly student services fee that covers the bus acquisition and operating costs.
When it comes to cost savings, factoring in charge time can ensure that the strain on an electric grid is minimized while providing low energy rates. For example, fleets that can charge their EVs overnight and midday will realize the highest cost-savings, as these are off-peak hours. Additionally, installing smart chargers or software to automate a fleet’s charging schedule and measure actual energy usage will help fleets better maximize the time-of-use rate structure.
Whether a university is looking to install a dozen EV chargers at student residence halls or carry out end-to-end e-mobility solutions across campus, prioritizing sustainability and the increasing EV needs of students and faculty will pay off now and for years to come.
Robbie Astrop and Greg Gustafson are Senior Business Development Managers with ABM eMobility & Electrical Infrastructure. They develop and deliver turnkey solutions for the full spectrum of e-mobility needs, from future-proofing infrastructure design to upgrading parking and transportation programs.