Rebecca Kiernan, Principal Resilience Planner for the City of Pittsburgh, explains how her office is making electric vehicle infrastructure more sustainable, equitable and accessible for all Pittsburghers, even if reaching that goal looks insurmountable at times.
More electric vehicles are cruising America’s streets than ever before. New EV registrations doubled each of the past two years, and the 2020 outlook for EV sales remains strong. But one critical problem persists: lack of adequate infrastructure to support this expected EV growth.
Rebecca Kiernan, Principal Resilience Planner for the City of Pittsburgh, has some ambitious ideas about how the City can tackle what has proven, for many, to be a daunting task. But that shouldn’t surprise us. Pittsburgh is, after all, the second U.S. city to announce it has adopted United Nations sustainability goals (New York City was the first).
A native of Long Island, NY, Kiernan came to the Steel City “by accident,” she says, after spending a year working in Indonesia on community engagement projects through Oxfam. After visiting Pittsburgh briefly in order to be reunited with her beloved dog, which was being taken care of by friends in her absence, she decided the city “is just one of those sticky places you fall in love with the longer you’re here,” so she packed her things to move here for good.
Kiernan earned her Master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, and has served for the past four years in the Division of Sustainability & Resilience under Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.
She sat down with us recently to share her perspective on the barriers to better EV infrastructure, and to explain the solutions her office is implementing to overcome them. Check out our eye-opening, two-part conversation below.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are the City of Pittsburgh’s goals in terms of transitioning to electric vehicles?
Our goals, overall, are to reduce transportation emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Switching out a single occupancy gas vehicle for a single occupancy electric vehicle is not going to help us reach those targets, by any means.
Ideally, we want to make the city walkable and bikeable and have publicly accessible transit for all. That mode shift is most important. If people can make trips that are close enough that they could be walked or bike to; if we can make it comfortable and easy for people to be able to get to wherever they’re going in a non-motorized capacity, that’s ideal. That will really bring our emissions down.
But for vehicles that need to be single occupancy or privately owned, we’d like to encourage the use of a better source of fuel. Pittsburgh has poor air quality that stems partly from energy generation in the region, so we are being very thoughtful about the increase in electricity and how that impacts health and our emissions portfolio, which is why we’re trying to couple any charging infrastructure with renewables where and when we can. That’s really important, or we’re not going to meet our 2030 target.
How did the City decide on that target?
We conduct a greenhouse gas inventory every five years that looks at emissions from the entire city footprint. 18 percent of our emissions portfolio comes from transportation, so that’s what we used to determine that target.We also used the Siemens City Reporting Tool to dig deeper into what actions we should prioritize to reduce emissions not just from transportation but also from buildings. It helped us determine what projects would get us the biggest bang for our buck.
Tell us about the City’s current electric vehicle fleet.
What about the City’s charging stations?
We have nine wall-mounted chargers that are tied to the electric grid, located at our motor pool lot for City employees who operate electric sedans. Those are all powered by ChargePoint. We also have 10 chargers at our 2nd Avenue parking lot, used by our Permits, Licenses and Inspections vehicles, which is the first fleet that we’re tackling converting.
The 2nd Avenue Lot currently does not have an electric hookup at the site, so those plugs are solar powered, mobile units with battery storage. They’re made by Envision Solar out of San Diego, and can also be deployed as generators to other areas of the city in the event of extended power outages.
We are now working to bring electric power permanently to the 2nd Avenue Lot, and will install eight more dual-hose Level 2 chargers for our fleet when that’s completed, hopefully by December. This project will allow us to power 16 more City fleet vehicles. Eventually, we will also want to have publicly accessible charging there, because it’s a public lot.
“Being smart about investments, enabling residents to charge close to home, and focusing on reducing range anxiety are all really important. “
–Rebecca Kiernan, Principal Resilience Planner, City of Pittsburgh
How does the City pay for its EVs and chargers?
We operate our own fleet, so we purchase all sorts of vehicles out of the City’s capital budget. For electric and other alternatively fueled vehicles, we’ve been taking advantage of Department of Environmental Protection grants through the state, and so far, we’ve been able to purchase electric vehicles for around the same cost of a gas vehicle, thanks to the subsidy.
The City was also awarded a grant to install a publicly accessible DC fast charger in a Pittsburgh Parking Authority lot in East Liberty. If you don’t have grants and rebates, DC fast chargers cost about $40K apiece. The complication there is having enough power to run a DC fast charger, which could add pretty significantly to the project cost. There’s a lot of infrastructure up front that has to go into making a site ready for a DC fast charger.
What about the cost of maintaining the EV fleet?
Maintenance cost is significantly lower because, with EV’s, they don’t need brake changes frequently. They don’t have oil changes. Fueling, obviously, is a lot cheaper, especially if we can get it subsidized with grants. Charging isn’t that expensive, but there are definitely maintenance savings over time that we’re still working to analyze.
What do you believe are the hurdles, generally, to more widespread EV adoption?
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. People won’t want to buy electric vehicles until charging infrastructure is more widespread. And as a City or a business, it’s hard to justify making the investment to install charging infrastructure when the customer base is still niche. Being smart about investments, enabling residents to charge close to home, and focusing on reducing range anxiety are all really important.
One barrier is the battery capacity, although that keeps getting better. The first wave of electric vehicles only got about 80 miles a charge, and that was if you weren’t using the air conditioner or the heating system. Now we get about 200 miles in the City’s Chevrolet Bolts. As the battery technology gets better, people will feel more comfortable buying those new vehicles.
But there’s also now an emerging market for used electric vehicles that will become more affordable as time goes on, which is good because then it’s more of an equitable technology that people can identify with.
Also, car dealerships don’t necessarily know about the technology. I went car shopping on my own. I wanted to get a used plug-in hybrid and I found out that I knew way more than any of the salespeople.
Education has to trickle down to the salespeople, because they don’t know how to answer questions and they’re not really, for the most part, promoting those vehicles as a result. As a consumer, you really have to do your own homework, and that’s not reassuring when you’re making such a large purchase.