TAEBC guest column: Transportation electrification can recharge Tennessee’s economy

(Originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel

By Cortney Piper, Executive Director of TAEBC

Tennessee unemployment lingers close to 10% as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to chew through livelihoods across the state. Likewise, millions of Americans are unemployed. The state has an opportunity in this economic downturn, however, to add jobs and make the state a leader in the advanced energy economy for transportation.

The energy sector, specifically transportation electrification, is the solution that Tennesseans should pursue. It would have statewide impact, and with the potential backing of federal funding, has the potential to launch the state into a new phase of manufacturing and job creation.

Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council supports stimulus proposal

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council recently signed on to the Transportation Electrification Partnership’s $150 billion federal stimulus proposal. The coalition of 50 cleantech organizations from 15 states recently sent a letter to Congress, requesting multi-billion-dollar federal investment in transportation electrification. That investment would create 2.3 million high-quality, advanced energy jobs across the country. The proposal’s recommended actions include:

  • $25 billion investment in building and adopting electric and zero-emissions vehicles along with supply-chain development (producing domestic lithium for batteries, etc.);
  •  $85 billion for electric vehicle charging and related infrastructure;
  • $25 billion for zero-emissions public transit, active transit and safe streets;
  • $12.5 billion for workforce development, safety standards and job training; and
  •   $2.5 billion in innovation ecosystems for cleantech startups and related small businesses, prioritizing those created by underrepresented founders.

This electrification proposal isn’t just about putting electric vehicles on the street. It’s about creating manufacturing jobs, as $25 billion would boost the electric vehicle supply chain. Facilities such as Denso in Maryville have become regional leaders in employment because of their role in the automotive supply chain.

A boost for community and technical colleges

Of the $150 billion in the proposal, $12.5 billion is dedicated to workforce development and job training. Think of the expansion that could provide for community and technical colleges across the state as we build a workforce of smart people with the technical know-how to remain competitive for new potential employers. Another $2.5 billion would go toward fostering an advanced-energy entrepreneurial ecosystem. That’s money directly going to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Transportation electrification falls under the advanced energy sector – anything making energy cleaner, safer, more secure or more efficient. At our core, TAEBC champions advanced energy as a job creation and economic development strategy. In our 2018 Tennessee Advanced Energy Economic Impact Report, we found that advanced energy contributes $39.7 billion to state gross domestic product and employs nearly 360,000 Tennesseans.

It’s simple: The advanced energy sector creates high-quality jobs, fuels growth for existing businesses and attracts new corporate investment in the state. It’s already happening. Volkswagen is opening a new $800 million electric vehicle production site. Facebook has a new $800 million data center near Nashville that will be powered by two new solar energy projects. Advanced energy will continue to recharge our economy and accelerate growth during this challenging time.

Tennessee is uniquely positioned to capitalize on transportation electrification thanks to the hard work of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and previous governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam, who diligently put our current advanced energy infrastructure and assets in place. Just last year, Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner, reinforced our state’s goal of becoming the top electric vehicle producer in the country.

The state is ready to lead the country in transportation electrification. In fact, work in electrification is a key part of Tennessee’s history in America. In 1933, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought jobs and helped Tennesseans pull through the worst of the Great Depression. Today, the transportation electrification efforts outlined in this proposal could and should be used as job creation and economic development opportunities to help us rise out of our current crisis.

Volkswagen, UTK, and ORNL to create innovation hub at UT Research Park

Volkswagen, the University of Tennessee, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have partnered to create the automaker’s first innovation hub in North America. The hub will be located at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm. Key stakeholders recently held a press conference at UT Research Park to announce the collaboration and hold a formal ribbon cutting ceremony. 

According to the official press release, the collaboration involves research opportunities for doctoral students with initial work focused on creating lighter vehicle components made from composite materials, electric vehicles, and other innovative automotive pursuits. 

Randy Boyd, President, University of Tennessee speaking

“Working with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a great opportunity to continue growing Volkswagen’s engineering footprint in the North American region,” said Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, VW’s executive vice president and chief engineering officer for the region. “This hub, along with other research institutions here, is an integral part of Volkswagen’s global research and development efforts and can also directly contribute to vehicles in North America.”

Volkwagen first partnered with the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, when it opened its Chattanooga Assembly plant in 2011. In late 2019, the automaker broke ground on a $800 million expansion of its Chattanooga Assembly Plant that will produce two battery-powered cars and create 1,000 new jobs in the area. 

TAEBC welcomes advanced energy solutions and partnerships like the innovation hub. This opportunity reinforces the state’s goal of becoming the top electric vehicle producer in the country, as previously stated by Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner.

Drive Electric Tennessee Needs Assessment Released for Statewide Charging Infrastructure

Drive Electric Tennessee published the Statewide Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Needs Assessment in November, following the release of the first edition of its Electric Vehicle Roadmap on January 18, 2019. The Roadmap set a goal to boost EV adoption to 200,000 by 2028 and identified projects and initiatives local stakeholders can implement to increase EV adoption statewide. 

The purpose of the assessment was to analyze the state’s current electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and find where new chargers should be placed to promote the continued adoption of EVs. According to the assessment, the main questions explored in the project include:

  • What is the coverage, usage, and state of repair of current charging infrastructure in Tennessee?
  • What are the plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) charging infrastructure needs in the state to support goal of 200,000 PEVs in Tennessee by 2028?
  • What gaps exist between the current infrastructure and future infrastructure needs?

To address these questions, the executive summary of the assessment is divided into four parts. According to the summary, the scope and key takeaways from each of these four parts are as follows:

  1. Baseline Light-Duty Assessment: In a research study of available data complemented by a field survey of 48 charging sites across the state, the assessment discovered:
    • 87 percent of surveyed charging sites were fully operational, matching public data from Plugshare.
    • There are opportunities for improvement with both user and host experience.
  2. EV Charging Use Case Tracks: Navigant’s VAST network siting optimization tool was used to identify potential geographic areas for charging infrastructure in order to meet the 200,000 EV goal. The assessment produced two maps of potential geographic areas for EV charging infrastructure to support deployment goals, which are:
    • Fast charging network map: Concentrated on or near corridors and high demands sites.
    • Level 2 charging network map: Complementary stations at fast charging sites and the majority of remaining use case tracks. 
  3. Use Case Prioritization: Through an evaluation of charging use cases based on market attractiveness and social impact, the assessment found that:
    • Primary market charging sites are more likely to attract private investment.
    • Corridor and secondary market sites may not attract private investment and are good candidates for public funding.
    • Multi-family sites are both attractive to private investment and have high social impact.
  4. Program Benchmarking: Data was collected on demographics, market development, utility programs, state EV policy, and outreach efforts across state and utility programs with attributes most relevant to the Tennessee market. The assessment found:
    • Broad stakeholder support is important to increase EV adoption.
    • Education and outreach efforts are important to successful programs.
    • Utility investment in make-ready infrastructure and EV rates are common in utility programs.

As TAEBC wrote earlier this year, advanced energy solutions, such as the adoption of clean transportation solutions, present economic development and job creation opportunities for the state. This newly released assessment highlights the value of moving forward with EV projects outlined in the Roadmap and establishing Tennessee as a powerhouse for EV manufacturing and use.

This goal was realized in November, when Volkswagen broke ground on its $800 million EV expansion at its Chattanooga plant, which will produce two battery-powered cars and create 1,000 new jobs in the region.

Volkswagen breaks ground on electric vehicle expansion at Chattanooga plant

Volkswagen recently broke ground on its $800 million expansion of its Chattanooga Assembly Plant that will produce two battery-powered cars and create 1,000 new jobs in the area. Construction is projected to take 17 months and hiring will begin at the end of 2020.

Around 200 company and auto industry representatives, state and local officials, plant employees, and members of the media gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony on November 13.

“This is a big, big moment for this company,” said Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in a prepared statement. “Expanding local production sets the foundation for our sustainable growth in the U.S. Electric vehicles are the future of mobility and Volkswagen will build them for millions of people.”

The factory expansion includes a 564,000-square-foot addition to the body shop and another 198,000 square feet for an assembly site for the vehicles’ electric battery packs. Tom du Plessis, CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga said the plant is expected to produce over 100,000 electric vehicles (EVs) a year, with the possibly for 200,000, depending on the market.

Volkswagen currently produces its midsize Atlas SUV and the Passat sedan at the Chattanooga facility. Production for its EVs should begin in early 2022, where the first model will be an all-electric crossover based on the I.D. CROZZ Concept. It will be the first EV produced in the country using Volkswagen’s MEB platform.

This Volkswagen groundbreaking also further reinforces the state’s goal of becoming the top electric vehicle producer in America, as stated by Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner. Rolfe was quoted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “Our goal is to be at the forefront of all electric vehicle manufacturing and the suppliers that will wrap around.”

Drive Electric Tennessee outlines plan for Tennessee’s electric vehicle future in statewide Electric Vehicle Roadmap

Drive Electric Tennessee, a statewide electric vehicle (EV) consortium, hopes to make the Tennessee Valley a leader in EV transportation in the Southeast over the next decade.

Throughout 2018, state agencies, universities, utilities, advocacy groups, electric vehicle OEMs, and other stakeholders collaborated to define their outlook for Tennessee’s clean transportation sector. In January 2019, Drive Electric Tennessee released the culmination of its hard work, A Roadmap for Electric Vehicles in Tennessee.

The Roadmap offers guiding principles, goals, opportunity areas, and approaches to get more EVs on the road during the next 10 years. According to the report, Drive Electric Tennessee aspires to significantly increase EV adoption from less than 5,000 EVs in 2017 to 200,000 by 2028.

Guiding principles behind the Roadmap focus on economic development, social benefits, cost-effectiveness, and technology innovation. The report states EV adoption in the state will promote local and regional economic development, reduce environment impacts, foster entrepreneurship and technical innovation, and prepare for a more connected, autonomous transportation sector in near the future.

The Roadmap identifies four key opportunity areas to address major EV market gaps in the state. Drive Electric Tennessee will meet each goal through the implementation of 45 projects and 15 initiatives over the next decade. Each opportunity area is tied to high-level, clean transportation goals for Tennessee. These four opportunity areas and goals are:

  1. Driving Charging Infrastructure Availability: Develop a charging infrastructure that enables Tennessee residents to (1) drive and charge an EV in their daily lives (home, work, and public charging) or (2) access electric public transit options.
  2. Driving Awareness: Increase awareness and first-hand experience of the benefits of driving an EV such that the majority of vehicle owners are aware of EVs when they begin their next purchasing process.
  3. Driving Innovative and Supportive Policies: Create consistent, innovative, and supportive policies across Tennessee at the state, county, city, and utility levels, inclusive of incentives, electricity rates, planning standards, and other policies and programs.
  4. Driving EV Availability, Offerings, and Innovation: Make EV models viable, accessible, and comparable purchasing alternatives to traditional vehicles.

At TAEBC, we believe advanced energy solutions, such as clean transportation, lead to state job creation and economic development. This Roadmap emphasizes the importance of stakeholders coming together to help Tennessee become a leader in EV adoption in the next few years.

As our state leads the country in employment for automobile and vehicle component manufacturing, we already have the potential to become an integral force in this bright future of the transportation sector.

This potential turned into a reality in mid-January, when Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced that Volkswagen will build their first EV manufacturing facility in the country in Chattanooga.

The project will create 1,000 new jobs in Hamilton county and serves as an $800 million investment from Volkswagen. Remarking on this deal, Rolfe told The Times Press Press that he intends for Tennessee to be number one in the country for EV manufacturing.

Both the announcement and Drive Electric Tennessee’s report demonstrates how Tennessee is turning stakeholder interest in sustainable transportation solutions into an economic reality to benefit all Tennesseans.