Clean transportation technologies are entering the market and hitting the roads faster than ever with billions of dollars in new investments from the federal government and private industry.
Recent federal investments include $7.5 billion for a nationwide network of electric vehicle (EV) and alternative fueling infrastructure, as well as more than $10 billion for clean school and public transit buses. These funds are helping pave the road toward decarbonizing U.S. transportation systems—following a trail blazed 30 years ago by people devoted to creating a foothold for sustainable transportation.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the Clean Cities Coalition Network in 1993 to boost the country’s economic vitality, energy security, and quality of life by advancing affordable, efficient, and clean transportation fuels and technologies. Over the past 30 years, coalition activities have saved the equivalent of 13 billion gallons of gasoline and prevented more than 67 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Clean Cities coalitions have also helped place more than 1.3 million alternative fuel vehicles on U.S. roads and establish the charging and fueling infrastructure to serve this growing market. As a network, coalitions generate national impact by transforming transportation systems at the local level. To make these impacts, coalitions draw on technical assistance, data, and tools created and maintained by several of DOE’s national laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Today, more than 75 Clean Cities coalitions cover nearly every state and 85% of the U.S. population and partner with 20,000 public and private stakeholders. Coalitions act locally in urban, suburban, and rural communities throughout the nation to help businesses and consumers meet their climate, financial, and energy goals.
Approximately 350 people from DOE, national laboratories, Clean Cities coalitions, and stakeholder organizations gathered in September to celebrate the network’s successes over the past 30 years. The event highlighted how Clean Cities is a unique federal effort that has thrived in large part because coalitions are able to customize their work to fit the local context.
“Coalitions work in their communities to understand local priorities and offer resources and expertise backed by real-world experience,” said Mark Smith, DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office Technology Integration Program manager. “Clean Cities is transforming transportation by bringing the latest technologies to the streets and providing technical assistance with lasting results.”
As technology deployment partners with DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office, coalitions leverage expertise from federal agencies, national laboratories—including NREL—and other coalitions. This expertise includes hands-on problem-solving assistance, education and outreach materials, organizational capacity building, and an array of data and analysis tools. Coalitions bring these resources directly to the people they serve, developing community-driven solutions based on a unique understanding of local needs, opportunities, and markets.
“Coalitions are a trusted, go-to resource for people who want to understand and adopt clean transportation technologies or alternative fuels,” said NREL’s Margo Melendez, a transportation technology deployment group manager. “Coalition staff live in the local regions where they work—they’re rooted in the community—so they know how to tailor projects to actual on-the-ground needs.”
NREL’s clean transportation deployment experts collaborate with Clean Cities coalitions by developing unbiased resources and customized, data-driven solutions. For 30 years, NREL has remained at the forefront of providing critical technical assistance to coalitions to solve some of the most complex clean transportation challenges. NREL’s direct involvement in technology deployment makes the laboratory a key partner in bringing knowledge of on-the-ground efforts to DOE and other federal agencies.
In addition to providing hands-on technical assistance, NREL produces and maintains a comprehensive suite of online resources and tools informed by deep relationships with coalitions and industry to accelerate deployment. These include the Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), which provides objective information about more than a dozen alternative fuels and technologies, as well as analysis tools, a database of transportation-related laws and incentives, and maps and data of alternative fuel and vehicle trends. The AFDC also houses the Alternative Fueling Station Locator, which allows users to find alternative fueling stations in the United States and Canada. In the past 12 months, people have viewed the station locator more than 7.6 million times, and it is the definitive data source for measuring the growth of EV charging stations.
Commitment to Community
“The NREL team strives to be responsive, adaptive, and flexible to coalition needs,” said Kaylyn Bopp, a transportation project leader at NREL. “We are their partners, so we work alongside them to identify how the lab’s expertise can increase coalition impact.”
For example, NREL collaborated with Kansas City Regional Clean Cities to enhance the coalition’s work with community-based organizations and develop strategies for incorporating community engagement into their project planning processes. With NREL’s guidance, the coalition gathered feedback from local organizations on how to best involve them in clean transportation projects, including compensating them for their time and keeping them informed of transportation efforts even if the organization was not directly involved.
“Through these conversations, the coalition now has better strategies for developing projects that are driven by community choices and needs,” Bopp said. “They also built stronger ties to community-based organizations that will greatly benefit future projects.”
Engaging with local organizations to co-develop projects can help maximize the benefits of clean transportation investments by aligning efforts with real, on-the-ground needs. With 30 years of experience fostering relationships with both federal agencies and local partners, coalitions are uniquely positioned to build bridges between national priorities and local needs.
Clean Cities coalitions can also apply their relationship-building expertise to help ensure the recent unprecedented federal investments in clean transportation reach underserved and overburdened communities.
“Community engagement helps elevate the voices of members of marginalized communities who have historically lacked the political power and economic capital to influence decision-making,” said Erin Nobler, a transportation project leader at NREL.
NREL is collaborating with DOE and Argonne National Laboratory to build the capacity of Clean Cities coalitions to put federal energy and environmental justice priorities into practice by taking a community-first approach to developing clean transportation projects. Coalitions received training and resources on community engagement best practices, historical transportation inequities, and metrics to evaluate project impacts, as well as other equity-related topics. Seventeen coalitions are receiving training and DOE funding to hire community engagement liaisons to further their work locally as part of a pilot effort.
This work aligns with the federal Justice40 Initiative, which reflects a commitment to securing environmental justice and spurring economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.
“Clean Cities coalitions can put federal equity priorities into practice by leveraging their community connections, enabling national priorities to manifest at a local level,” Nobler said. “Coalitions also relay knowledge and insights from their local context to inform national efforts and priorities.”
Model for Collaborative Technology Deployment
The innovative model built over the past 30 years by Clean Cities serves as a framework for how federal programs can successfully deploy new technologies by intertwining national goals and initiatives with local, community-based actions. An NREL report, “Clean Cities: A Model of Collaborative Technology Innovation Built Over 30 Years,” documents how the network successfully deploys new technologies through long-term, multidirectional stakeholder engagement.
“Clean Cities centers the knowledge, expertise, and vision of local communities,” said Marcy Rood, a principal environmental analyst at Argonne National Laboratory who provides support to coalitions. “Others can learn from the network’s 30 years of experience how to design community-centered solutions that align national objectives with local goals and visions.”
The long-standing success of Clean Cities as a technology deployment model is also being leveraged by more recent federal efforts, including Clean Energy to Communities (C2C), a new DOE program that helps local governments, tribes, electric utilities, and community-based organizations set and meet their clean energy goals. C2C leverages the latest set of advanced capabilities from national laboratories, including NREL, as well as community engagement and peer-learning strategies. Under NREL’s leadership, Clean Cities coalitions will support communities participating in C2C offerings by leveraging the transportation technology deployment and partnership-building expertise within the Clean Cities Coalition Network.
Everything began in 1993 with six coalitions, and over the next 30 years Clean Cities built bipartisan support and established a presence in nearly every state. Today, coalitions work in communities large and small throughout the country to generate a compounding impact nationwide—far beyond what any single organization could accomplish on its own.
“Coalitions are advancing U.S. energy independence and reducing vehicle emissions while supporting regional economic development and job growth,” Smith said. “Their deep connections, expertise, and skills at relationship building are crucial as we continue to move transportation into the clean energy future.”
30 Years of Clean Transportation Deployment Projects
Explore projects highlighting how Clean Cities coalitions act in local communities throughout the country.
High School Program Creates Pathway Into Zero-Emissions Vehicle Careers
Long Beach Clean Cities‘ High School Pilot Project connects students in underserved communities throughout California with programs that prepare the next generation for careers in the clean fuels industry. A $3.5 million grant provided funding for 51 high schools to purchase equipment and tools, train educators, and implement classes on zero-emission vehicle maintenance and manufacturing. Approximately 2,700 high school students have participated in these classes, and many students gain additional experience through internships and job placements that provide direct opportunities to work with zero-emission vehicles. The students, many of whom live in multigenerational homes where English is not the first language, also bring their knowledge back to their communities and raise awareness about all-electric and hybrid vehicles.
High School Students Produce Biodiesel
St. Louis Clean Cities partnered with Rockwood Summit High School to teach students about the biochemistry and production of biodiesel. Students produce biodiesel that powers a school-owned truck, and the remaining product is sold to Washington University. Students also turn residual glycerin into soap. They go on to conduct outreach and education, including hosting a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) event at the school and participating in auto shows to educate others. Their efforts have been rewarded with scholarships, including presidential scholarships awarded to two students.
More Than 20 School Districts Choose Propane School Buses
Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation and Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities worked with more than 20 school districts throughout Pennsylvania to deploy approximately 1,000 propane-fueled school buses, making the state third in the nation for the number of alternative fuel buses on the road. Thousands of students have ridden these buses in the five years since they were deployed. The Clean Cities coalitions continue to educate fleets on the benefits of propane school buses, and the increased visibility of the buses operating in other districts and opportunities to ride them are helping to spur further adoption. To provide these opportunities, the coalitions hold ride and drives, as well as workshops on funding opportunities, propane bus technology, operations, and maintenance. They find continued interest in propane school buses as a beneficial solution for districts looking to replace their diesel buses.
Running the Rails on Liquefied Natural Gas
North Florida Clean Fuels Coalition funded the Florida East Coast Railroad for a pilot project converting locomotives to liquefied natural gas (LNG), and the success of the pilot led to a full rollout to 40 locomotives. The railroad replaced about 80% of the train’s diesel fuel with LNG, resulting in a 25% reduction in carbon output, 40% reduction in sulfur output, and a $2 million reduction in annual operation costs. This project provided benefits directly to Florida residents and visitors—the Florida East Coast Railroad operates only within Florida, with its terminus in the Jacksonville area. This investment was part of over $5 million that North Florida Clean Fuels Coalition invested in alternative fuels and infrastructure improvements since the coalition’s designation in 2016.
Tribe Deploys First Electric School Bus in North Carolina
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians deployed the first electric school bus in North Carolina, in partnership with the Cherokee Boys Club and additional partners secured by Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition. This project was driven by the tribe’s respect for the land, the people, the mountains, and the air, and their desire to find new ways to be good stewards of their resources. The tribe purchased the bus using Volkswagen Settlement funds, and project partners celebrated the arrival of the new vehicle with a drag racing event where the chief drove an electric school bus against a diesel counterpart—winning most of the races that day. Representatives from six other school districts also attended the event to experience the potential of new transportation technologies. Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition leveraged that opportunity to listen and learn more about the perceived barriers to electric bus adoption and how the Clean Cities coalition can continue to serve as conveners and help close technology and funding gaps for future projects.
Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Expands in Rural Virginia
Virginia Clean Cities, as part of the Mid-Atlantic Electrification Partnership, installed 375 electric vehicle (EV) chargers to provide access to charging in rural and underserved communities. This project works with communities throughout Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and West Virginia to identify and fill gaps in charging infrastructure. Partnership representatives engage with local entities to learn about their EV charging needs and goals, including fee structures, dwell time, and projected future demand. Communities are reporting that public chargers are being consistently used, and additional chargers are being installed to meet growing demand. By taking a community-forward approach and focusing on rural and underserved areas, Virginia Clean Cities is helping ensure no one is left behind in the transition to electrified transportation.
Learn more about NREL’s sustainable transportation and mobility research. And sign up for NREL’s quarterly transportation and mobility research newsletter, Sustainable Mobility Matters, to get the latest news.
By Joanna Allerhand, courtesy of NREL
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