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Recap: Advancing a Just and Low-Carbon Future with Urban Electrification

Monday, August 2, 2021

Marilyn Brown, PhD, Lectures at the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s 2021 Thought Leadership Series 

On July 20, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) welcomed Dr. Marilyn Brown, Regents' and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology, to its 2021 thought leadership speaker series, Innovation for a Sustainable, Equitable Transportation System

Brown created and co-leads Georgia Tech’s Climate and Energy Policy Lab and the Master of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Management program. She presented her talk “Advancing a Just and Sustainable Future with Urban Electrification” to more than 400 guests. The session was hosted by U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director Anne D. Aylward.

This post provides a recap of Brown’s talk. You can watch video highlights from the event here.

A “Decisive Decade” for Energy Transformation

Brown’s research focuses on the design and modeling of energy markets and carbon-reduction policies and programs, highlighting opportunities on the customer side of the electric meter—including energy end-use efficiency, rooftop solar systems, vehicle-to-grid interactions, smart thermostats, and home storage devices. 

The 2020s, according to Brown, will be a “decisive decade” because solutions to the climate crisis will be critical to long-term prosperity. Urbanized areas and cities, which globally consume about 75 percent of energy and generate 75 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions, are at the forefront of the emerging field of urban electrification. This includes not only electric vehicles (EVs), but increases in the use of electric heat pumps, induction ranges, and advanced manufacturing using electrified equipment.

Electric Vehicles’ Contribution to Resilience

From Brown’s perspective, transportation is the sector that will likely undergo the most rapid increase in electrification; if the grid is producing electricity with renewables, there can be significant reductions in transportation-related CO2 emissions. Policies to speed up decarbonization can hasten this shift, and according to Brown, by 2030, the U.S. electricity mix is forecast to be approximately 50 percent fossil fuels and 50 percent renewables. 

Novel developments in vehicle electrification are expanding opportunities to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. EVs can also contribute to the security of electricity systems and potentially provide grid services in three ways. First, grid-to-vehicle (G2V) services include demand response and coordinated charging. Next, vehicle-to-buildings (V2B) services can include emergency backup and negative demand response. Finally, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) services like voltage control and frequency regulation offer market opportunities that can strengthen the electricity grid.  

Aspirational and Achievable

Crucially, Brown pointed out the imperative to consider urban electrification and EVs through a justice and equity lens. Currently, low-income households have less access to EV charging, lower rates of EV ownership, and lower participation in energy-efficiency programs and services. “A policy makeover is needed to promote an equitable energy transition across all sectors of the economy, including transportation,” according to Brown. Initiatives like Justice 40 are outlining the contours of such a policy makeover.

In concert with major federal policy initiatives, local climate action plans must include high-impact solutions that are tailored to local geographic contexts. In 2019, Brown began the multi-year Drawdown Georgia project, an initiative to identify a strategy to significantly cut the carbon footprint of the State of Georgia, modeled after the global Project Drawdown project. The effort in Georgia analyzed dozens of potential emissions-reduction tactics, considering criteria such as market readiness and cost competitiveness. 

The team selected 20 solutions across five sectors of the economy, including transportation. The solutions created a “roadmap” to bridge gaps between state and local planning efforts; many solutions, like the expansion of mass transit, offered co-benefits beyond climate impacts, including equity, economic development and job creation, public health, and environmental quality. Brown’s work with the Drawdown Georgia project contends that Georgia can reduce its carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2030, an aspirational and achievable decline in CO2 over a 25-year period. 

View video highlights from Brown’s July 20, 2021 talk here. To learn more about the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s 2021 thought leadership program, please contact U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director of Strategic Initiatives for Research and Innovation Ellen E. Bell.

Video Highlights

Highlights from "Advancing a Just and Low-Carbon Future with Urban Electrification"

Dr. Marilyn Brown on the 2020s as a Decisive Factor for the Transportation Sector

Dr. Marilyn Brown on Electric Vehicles Bolstering Resilience to Climate Change Impacts

Dr. Marilyn Brown on Major Emissions Reduction Goals are Both Aspirational and Achievable

The views of the speaker do not represent the views of U.S. DOT.

Celebrating more than 50 years of federal service to the nation, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s mission is to improve the nation's transportation system by anticipating emerging issues and advancing technical, operational, and institutional innovations for the public good.