Our Top Energy Efficiency Stories of 2020

Photo: Evie S.

2020 was a year of firsts and hopefully some never-agains. We experienced the first global pandemic in over a century, grieved over the tragic consequences of systemic racism, and felt the uncertainty of a growing economic recession. The energy sector and the Southeast did not go unscathed. In this time of loss, we found resilience and a renewed purpose to bring our values into our work every day. These are the stories that kept us up at night, gave us hope, and reminded us that there is still work to be done.

Energy-Efficient Transportation

Photo: Andrew Roberts

Electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure expanded throughout the Southeast in 2020. In North and South Carolina, Duke Energy Progress and Duke Energy Carolinas were approved to implement electric vehicle pilot programs that include the installation and operation of EV charging stations in public places and multifamily communities as well as publicly accessible fast-charging stations. The Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7018, which paved the way for the development of a statewide electric vehicle infrastructure master plan. In December 2020, the Florida Department of Transportation submitted its draft of policy recommendations and is expected to complete the master plan by July 1, 2021.

EV manufacturing boomed throughout the region. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International has planned a new EV parts facility near Tuscaloosa, AL. GM announced plans to transition its existing assembly plant in Spring Hill, TN, to its third electric vehicle manufacturing plant in North America. Arrival, the U.K. electric vehicle startup, has chosen Charlotte, NC for its headquarters after announcing plans to build a microfactory in nearby Rock Hill, SC. These developments keep or create over 4,000 jobs in the Southeast and represent a $3 billion investment in local economies.

Energy Efficiency Policy

Photo: Pieter van de Sande

In spring 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed and approved the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), requiring state utilities to produce 30% of their energy from renewables by 2030, close all carbon-emitting power plants by 2050, and attain mandatory energy efficiency savings targets. Additionally, the General Assembly made the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice a permanent advisory body to the executive branch, after operating on a temporary basis for nearly two years. The council will provide recommendations to protect vulnerable communities and integrate environmental justice into the state’s daily operations.

In 2019, four of the seven utilities subject to the Florida Energy Efficiency Conservation Act (FEECA) proposed reducing their energy efficiency goals to zero, or nearly zero, for the next decade. The Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC) rejected those goals and began to assess with state legislators how they might reform or reinterpret FEECA to improve energy savings. In early 2020, the FPSC opened docket 20200181 and requested commission staff to propose changes to the processes of setting goals and approving programs for energy efficiency. On January 14, 2021, policy director Cyrus Bhedwar participated in a workshop held by the FPSC on the FEECA revision process. The FPSC is accepting written public comments until February 15.

Both of these acts set the stage for decades of improved energy efficiency goals and clean energy standards, providing a healthier, more just future across the Southeast.

Built Environment

Photo: Katie Harp

The onset of the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic revealed and made worse existing inequities in housing and energy for millions of Americans. In September 2020, research from Indiana University confirmed that energy insecurity, the inability to pay utility bills, is higher in households of color than their white counterparts. The American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) listed Birmingham, AL as the city with the highest energy burden and Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee the most energy burdened states in the country.

Because of this existing economic inequity, Black and Latino communities are most at risk for utility shut-offs. Access to electricity, gas, water, and broadband are all crucial to remaining healthy during a pandemic and sheltering at home.

2020 also affirmed that energy efficiency regulation works. An April FEMA study found that strong building codes, including energy codes, in Florida and California will save the country’s most disaster-prone states $1 billion annually. In its annual progress report, Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative reported nearly $11 billion in savings since its inception a decade ago.

Diversity, Inclusion, & Integration

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

This summer there was a national calling to confront systemic racism and reform police practices. In the midst of this reckoning, private and public changes moved the region and the energy sector towards equity. In July 2020, Georgia Power’s Senior Vice President of Metro Atlanta & Corporate Relations Bentina Chisolm Terry took on an expanded role that includes Georgia Power’s work in underserved communities – people of color, the elderly, women, and LGBTQ+. In October 2020, Terry, and her colleague Latanza Adjei, Vice President of Corporate Services, were selected to the Atlanta Business League’s list of “Atlanta’s Top 100 Black Women of Influence.”

In August 2020, Department of Energy announced the first slate of Equity in Energy Ambassadors and Champions. The Ambassadors are responsible for leading efforts for ensuring diversity and equal access to energy. In Mississippi, residents overwhelmingly voted in the general election to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag. Similarly, Alabama voters approved an amendment that starts the process of deleting racist language from the state constitution inserted during the Jim Crow era.

While this work is not complete, these steps bend the arc of the universe just a bit more towards justice and equity.

EV batteries show the promise of cleaner, electrified transportation

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

As we identify cleaner alternatives to gas and diesel-powered vehicles, electric vehicles (EVs) have become clear front-runners as the cleanest, most affordable option for personal and commercial use. Demand for EVs has steadily increased over the last decade as models have become cheaper and more powerful. The success of a select few, light-duty EVs, has morphed into a much bigger movement, which now includes electric buses and trucks, delivery vehicles, and more entering the market.  

The battery plays a crucial role in the long-term success of electric vehicles. It is responsible for the vehicle’s range and power, yet it is also the most controversial and expensive part of an EV. Lowering the cost of a battery is key to lowering the overall costs of EVs and allows them to reach cost parity with gasoline-powered vehicles. Batteries, however, are not without their flaws. From material extraction, manufacturing, and disposal, these processes can all have negative environmental consequences. As the number of EVs grows, finding safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly ways to make these batteries and keep them out of landfills poses a challenge and opportunity.  

Current research addresses weaknesses of lithium-ion batteries

Research is advancing quickly alongside the increase of EV adoption. Costs are expected to match those of gasoline vehicles by 2023.

Research teams across the world are seeking ways to reduce the impacts of EV batteries in each stage of its lifecycle. In the Southeast, Clemson University is researching ways to improve battery production, which would significantly lower costs and increase the power of EV batteries. Georgia Tech is working on a range of battery projects including developing strategies to remanufacture, repurpose, and recycle spent EV batteries. The study further evaluates the use of recycled batteries in smart homes and local electrical grids. In other areas of the country, IBM is using materials extracted from seawater to build a new battery that does not use heavy metals. Early testing shows that it can be optimized to surpass the capabilities of lithium-ion batteries including lower cost, faster charging time, higher power and energy density, strong energy efficiency, and low flammability. Tesla is developing an EV battery that is free of cobalt, one of the most expensive and difficult battery elements to mine.

Battery production provides economic growth opportunities

Battery production companies like SK Innovation are expanding and creating new economic opportunities in the region, with the development of two battery plants in Georgia. This growth brings potential to build infrastructure to reuse and recycle EV batteries and create jobs in the Southeast.

Second-life uses reduces the environmental impact of EV batteries

As EVs age and come off the road, the second life battery supply is projected to exceed 200 gigawatt-hours per year by 2030. This will not only exceed the demand for lithium-ion battery storage, it exceeds a value of $30 billion. The Southeast can look to places like China or Europe for standardization procedures for used batteries, recycling incentives for consumers, and other policies that can encourage battery reuse and recycling and support a growing EV economy.

With an increased number of new models of electric light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles in development, experts predict that electric vehicle sales to be half of overall vehicle sales worldwide by 2040. However, this future is contingent on the components and prices of EV batteries as clean and inexpensive as possible. Our recent report, “EV Battery Benefits, Challenges, & Trends,” details the core concerns about battery technology and the current state of the battery industry, including:

  • Why is lithium-ion the most popular type of EV battery?
  • What are the alternatives to lithium-ion?
  • How can EV batteries be used in their second life?
  • What does EV battery recycling look like?
  • What policies exist that support recycling and battery reuse?

Municipalities and state leaders, business leaders, fleet directors, and others are looking for opportunities to make their operations more sustainable, reduce their energy impacts, and protect the environment. Shifting fleets to cleaner, electric options, will play a key role in those plans. This report gives insight into the battery industry and the benefits and opportunities of electric transportation.

Questions? Contact director of energy efficient transportation, Anne Blair