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Electrifying Buses and the Role of Utilities: Exclusive Interview with Pete Westlake of Orlando Utilities Commission - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Energy Efficiency Group
image credit: Peter Westlake
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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Oct 15, 2019 2:30 pm GMT
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When discussing the role of utilities in decarbonization, the conversation typically centers on powering the grid with cleaner energy sources and highlighting carbon-neutral electric generation. Transportation, however, is just as (if not more) critical towards overall emissions reduction goals, and utilities can have an immense impact on the electrification of vehicle fleets, including buses.

This responsibility of utilities to hasten the transition to electric vehicles, including electric buses, is at the heart of the presentation Pete Westlake will be giving at the upcoming 2019 SEEA Conference on Energy Efficiency. Pete, a Manager of Strategic Customer Programs, Finance and Contracts at the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), will be sharing with those in attendance his successes and insights from the LYNC & OUC eBus Pilot during the conference’s ‘Big and Small – Transportation for All’ session.

As Pete prepares to share his lessons learned and help other utilities to achieve the same type of successful pilot that OUC has accomplished, he kindly agreed to share some of his insights ahead of time with the Energy Central community in an exclusive interview:

Matt Chester: As a bit of background, how did your career pathway take you to be involved in vehicle electrification for utilities and why do you find this to be a topic that’s particularly interesting to work in?

Pete Westlake: My background has very little to do with this subject; I am a large-scale project and program manager for technical projects. My skills are very complimentary for a task that is this large and complex. Having said this, I have had electric, plug-in electric vehicles for 13 years. I have a strong connection with sustainable resource management, so this is more of a passion for me. It just so happens that I have a good tool bag to assist in adopting electric buses.  And, quite frankly, I do not carry the baggage of “we have always done it that way” as I am 5 years young into utilities, but over 30 years old in program management.

 

MC: When many people think about vehicle electrification, they think about personal vehicles—but the program you’re discussing at OUC is an electric bus pilot. What led OUC to decide now was the time to focus on electrifying the bus systems?

PW: Buses will be the first vehicle to fully electrify, as is the case in China and other European markets.  These vehicles are best suited to first affect a lot of individuals and are relatively easier to convert since the total numbers of buses in service are fewer than cars and they stay in service longer.

 

MC: What are the particular challenges that you’ve thus far had to overcome, and what are the most difficult hurdles you feel you still have to clear?

PW: The first challenge was getting people to think about the long game.  Electric buses and vehicles cost more upfront, but at the end of life, it will have cost you less.  In mass transit, the next biggest hurdle will be to determine how to modify the overnight maintenance process: staging, cleaning, charging, etc. for the bus.  We need to consider this from a different perspective and hopefully not try to fit a new process in an old methodology.

 

MC: Other utilities have completed programs for electric buses before you, so were you able to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in this field from programs that came before you? Were there any unique factors to the Central Florida area, such as demographics or geography, that warranted special consideration?

PW: We have reached out to many that have gone before us.  But I want to make sure we know there are not a lot of long-running programs.  Until recently there were only a handful of buses in operation in a few locations.  Where we could learn loads is in Shenzhen's 16,000 100% electric bus in China. There are only a little more than 300 electric buses in ALL of the United States.

MC: At this point, what’s the main limiting factor in the implementation of these programs? What’s keeping them from being even more rapid deployments?

PW: The biggest issue is the cost differential. The unfortunate truth is that operationally over 15 years the electric bus wins, but upfront you must pay more money. This is why our program has some promise.  The utility tends to make 10- to 20-year investments and is comfortable with a return that takes time.  Rapid deployment is more about setting up the infrastructure to allow an entire fleet to recharge in less than 8 hours, we will likely need a full substation to support a 150-bus fleet.

 

MC: Lastly, what are some of the other topics that you’re looking forward to hearing about and learning about while at the 2019 SEEA Conference, outside of your own?

PW: I am looking forward to finding innovative ways to finance large-scale investments in energy efficiency such as building automation, HVAC, etc., where it is difficult to get people to fund a good idea because it cost money to save money.

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If you’re interested in hearing more about Pete’s insights into vehicle electrification from the utility perspective, be sure to check out his presentation at the 2019 SEEA Conference, taking place from October 21 to 23 in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.

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