Boston has a car problem. Too many people commute by car. And because of air pollution regulations, we have run up against parking limits. A recent Boston Globe article suggests Boston should follow the lead of Amsterdam and Copenhagen in building underwater parking garages as part of the solution. But we need to think bigger, especially if Boston is to meet its goal of getting one-third of the proposed 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from transportation.
Transportation accounts for about 27 percent of Boston’s emissions. While improving and expanding public transit is the priority, people will still use cars and the remedy is more electric vehicles. Cities have to do a lot of planning to figure out how many charging stations are needed, where to locate them, and how to structure payment schedules. Boston is not a leader on this front.
London’s 2017 Transport Strategy calls for becoming a zero-carbon city by 2050. One strategy is to create an Ultra Low Emission Zone, a large area of the central city where higher-polluting vehicles will be banned. In addition, London is electrifying buses and the city’s iconic black taxis and building an extensive electric charging network.
Or take Oslo, the world’s electric vehicle capital. Oslo offers free parking, no tolls, and allows electric cars to travel in bus lanes. The city has built an extensive charging infrastructure to reduce the “range anxiety” that discourages people from buying electric vehicles.
Oslo’s electric utility, Fortum, partnered with the city to build Vulkan, which features one of the world’s most advanced parking garages for electric vehicles. It is a testbed for vehicle-to-grid charging. If a lot of cars are charging at once, the system automatically switches some cars to a 50-kilowatt battery in the garage. Perfecting vehicle-to-grid charging is important because if electric vehicles take off, utilities are concerned they could destabilize the grid by creating high demand at peak times.
While there is no capacity problem currently in Oslo, Fortum is perfecting the batteries and software for vehicle-to-grid charging. Jan Haugen Ihle, country manager of Fortum Charge & Drive Norway, said that Fortum has already deployed the software in several European countries and is in discussions with India, Canada, and other countries.
The next step is vehicle-to-grid integration — moving power from cars to feed the grid. Haugen Ihle says Vulkan’s electrical system is set up to allow apartments on the floors above the garage to be fed electricity from cars in the garage. This technology is a relatively inexpensive way to reduce peak demand. Elsewhere, researchers are investigating how this technology could provide storage to compensate for the intermittency of solar and wind power.
California is also exploring vehicle-to-grid integration and exploring the regulatory issues that would need to be addressed to do it. An experiment at the Los Angeles Air Force Base is testing the technology. And Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, started an initiative that has cities using their purchasing power to stimulate demand for electric vehicles. It started with Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Seattle requesting 24,000 cars and now has dozens of cities requesting a total of more than 114,000 vehicles.
Here in Massachusetts, the state created a $14 million fund in 2016 for rebates between $750 and $2,500 to purchase an electric vehicle. It also provides employers incentives for installing charging stations, but not much else.
Boston requires that 5 percent of parking be equipped with electric vehicle chargers, and an additional 10 percent in new construction projects and some areas of the city. The Go Boston 2030 Vision and Action Plan released in March proposes creating “microhubs” where people can access multiple transportation options.
It’s a start, but these initiatives pale in comparison to those of Los Angeles, Portland, and other US cities, and we lag far behind Europe.
Massachusetts prides itself on innovation being the backbone of the economy. On reducing vehicle emissions, we need to do better.
Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book “Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change.”