Millions Of Electric Vehicles To Invade US Southeast In Big Decarbonization Push

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Ten million people in the US Southeast woke up on Valentine’s Day to hear that their entire region has been targeted for decarbonization by the Tennessee Valley Authority, with a particular focus on electric vehicles. That will take a while, but the Southeast’s new status as an epicenter of domestic electric vehicle manufacturing could help push things along. As for regional politics, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Decarbonizing The US Southeast, With Electric Vehicles

We’ll get to those politics in a minute. For now let’s just note that the news is particularly significant because the Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest public utility in the US, established under a Depression-era rural electrification mandate. With 153 local power companies under its umbrella, TVA now sprawls over seven states including parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia as well as most of Tennessee.

The TVA has been the target of criticism for foot-dragging on clean power, but it looks like the gloves are off. The utility sent a Valentine’s Day card to its constituents in the form of a newly released study that assesses decarbonization steps for the region, towards a goal of net zero by 2050.

The first-of-its-kind Valley Pathways study, produced in partnership with the University of Tennessee, zeroes in on electric vehicles like a thousand points of light.

“Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the region at 36% of the total and electrifying light-duty vehicles is the single largest carbon reduction opportunity,” TVA explains.

TVA emphasizes that a net zero goal for the region is impossible without a contribution from electric vehicles and other end-user decarbonization solutions.

“If TVA achieved net-zero by 2050, the region would still produce almost 150 million tonnes of carbon. Therefore, support from other economic sectors is required,” they note.

The new study examined carbon emissions from 24 different sectors. Taking power generation out of the picture would still leave 73% of emissions in the mix, coming from gasmobiles and other sources.

To complicate matters farther, some of the low-hanging decarbonization fruit has already been plucked. Compared to a benchmark year of 2005, total carbon emissions in the TVA region have already fallen by 30%. TVA attributes 39% of drop to the widespread adoption of no-till farming. TVA also cites improvements in its power generation profile, which contributed a 50% share to the drop.

Electric Vehicles & Economic Development

Still, TVA seems confident that low-hanging fruit is still on the vine, waiting to be plucked. That means electric vehicles, and more electric vehicles.

Among a short list of “building blocks” actions needed to reach the net zero goal, TVA notes that the region has been growing its public EV charging station network at a rapid pace.

“Between September 2022 and September 2023, the Southeast increased the number of electric charging stations by 69% and now has 15,036 stations across the region,” TVA notes, citing statistics compiled by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The introduction of new carbon-cutting liquid fuels is also part of the transportation decarbonization plan. However, we’re guessing that’s not a priority for TVA, which operates under an economic development mandate. Fuel production is not a particularly active part of the region’s economy, whereas the electric vehicle industry has already had a significant impact.

The Southeast region had a fairly robust automotive sector in the early 1900s, including an interesting but short-lived electric truck factory in Kentucky. It wasn’t long before Michigan and other northern states began to dominate the industry, though.

More recently the seesaw has been swinging back to Southern states, helped along by “right to work” laws that undercut the unionized shops of the North with a less costly, more compliant workforce.

In a somewhat ironic twist, right-to-work policies have helped to lay the groundwork for the Southeast to emerge as an engine driving the electric vehicle industry.

“For many years now, the Southern U.S. has been the fastest growing region in the country for the automotive industry,” the Southern Automotive Alliance remarked back in 2019. “Besides the number suppliers and other related businesses emerging in the sector, the sheer volume of cars produced in Southern plants can be staggering, and perhaps surprising.”

Much has happened since 2019. In just the past five years or so, for example, Ford announced plans for a new EV campus in Tennessee, and Hyundai began expanding its EV operations in Georgia.

How To Sell More Electric Vehicles

Last fall, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy released a report summarizing the EV six Southeast states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, noting that “the region is a national leader in capturing EV-related investments and jobs, with 40% of manufacturing investments and 35% of all announced manufacturing jobs to date.”

That’s pretty impressive, but getting people to buy electric vehicles is a horse of a different color. SACE notes that the six states in the survey “lag behind national averages in EV sales.” SACE also notes under-performance in the areas of charging station deployment, utility investment, and public funding.

That leads us back around to the TVA. The agency has set a goal of more than 200,000 electric vehicles to hit the road in its territory by 2028. Rather than focusing narrowly on saving the planet, TVA makes the connection between economic development and decarbonization.

“Increasing the number of EVs in the Valley will lead to millions of dollars in fuel savings for drivers, millions of dollars in local investment and jobs for our neighbors, and dramatic reductions in carbon emissions across our region,” TVA notes enthusiastically.

“We’re hitting the ground running with a strategic plan for developing a fast-charging EV network across the region, making it easier for drivers to make the switch to EVs,” they add.

If individual drivers continue to foot-drag on EV adoption in the Southeast, fleet owners could pick up the slack. That includes the TVA fleet, too. A few years back they began working with Volkswagen to develop a new electric SUV customized for TVA operations.

“TVA intends to replace its carbon-emitting vehicle fleet with nearly 400 light-duty and 800 medium-duty EVs, along with the addition of more than 300 charging stations at TVA locations,” TVA explains.

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Next Steps For The TVA

Speaking of foot-dragging, the TVA has taken plenty of flack for the slowness of its pace on wind and solar adoption.

The wind side is a bit complicated from a technology perspective because wind resources across the Southeast are less than optimal. The US Department of Energy is working to turn that around with taller turbine towers and other technology improvements.

Meanwhile, state policy makers in the region are finally beginning to show a glimmer of enthusiasm for solar power. Kentucky, for example, currently ranks a lowly #43 among the 50 states for installed solar capacity. However, it shoots up to #16 in terms of growth over the next five years, adding 3,370 megawatts to its current roster of just 172 megawatts.

The political situation at TVA has also shifted. The climate organization Evergreen Action is among TVA’s harshest critics, but that could change. In its latest report, Evergreen notes that appointees of President Biden now hold the majority of seats on the TVA board.

“TVA has a window of opportunity to align itself with our national climate goals, break away from its reliance on coal and gas, and provide more reliable, cost-effective, and equitable energy to its ratepayers,” Evergreen observes.

No kidding. Check out more of CleanTechnica’s TVA coverage here.

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Image (screenshot): New decarbonization study focuses on electric vehicles, courtesy of University of Tennessee and TVA.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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