Our Journey


Smart Columbus

December 7th, 2023

Post by Donna Marbury, Smart Columbus Storyteller

The goal of the $10 million Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant that the City of Columbus received from the 2016 Smart City Challenge is to help disrupt the current climate trajectory by decreasing carbon emissions – one of the most urgent challenges the world is facing.

Columbus beat out 77 other cities competing in the Smart City Challenge with its approach to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector through consumer EV adoption, installation of charging infrastructure, fleet EV adoption and decarbonization of the power grid.

“Working as a team with both public and private sectors to create a path forward toward each priority’s ambitious goals was an essential part of Smart Columbus’ successes,” says Bud Braughton, project manager for the City of Columbus and Smart Columbus.

During the grant period, transportation (28 percent) and electricity (27 percent) were the leading causes of GHG emissions in the U.S. Much strategy and effort was employed by our team and partners to create tactics to increase EV adoption and to develop unique and appropriate tracking methodology for GHG emissions impacts attributable to EV adoption and decarbonization efforts.

EV adoption goals

In the first quarter of 2017, only about 0.4 percent of new cars registered in the Columbus seven-county region were EVs. Smart Columbus used this metric as a starting point to craft its EV adoption goals.

Because the state of Ohio is not a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) program state, there are no state or local government incentives to encourage consumer EV adoption. To counteract this, Smart Columbus focused on EV adoption including public, private and transportation service provider fleets as well as general consumer adoption.

The grant allowed the team to determine a goal for increasing EV adoption, but the team wanted to be strategic about setting this goal to account for overall market trends and EV perceptions in the region. The Smart Columbus team looked at goals being set in ZEV program states and compared that to EV adoption trends in the Midwest. The team wanted to set an aggressive adoption goal, without making it unachievable.

“Monitoring what the West Coast states were doing, we deliberated on a goal of two percent increased EV adoption over the next three years, although we thought it might be a little too lofty for Ohio. Based on the 0.4 percent adoption rate at the time, we felt that five times the current adoption rate was pretty significant. We finally settled on 1.8 percent, which equated to about 3,200 new EVs purchased over a three-year period,” Braughton says.

Consultations with the Electrification Coalition and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also helped the team consider local dealership inventory, charging infrastructure and both fleet and consumer adoption tactics.

“It’s also important to have conversations with local dealerships to understand their current EV sales goals,” Braughton says. “In our case, most local dealers were bought in to what we were doing and interested initiatives to grow their businesses for the future.”

Presenting the EV adoption goal as a percentage rather than total EV sales was chosen to allow the ability to make comparisons to other markets, Braughton says. Smart Columbus purchases quarterly data by ZIP code from IHS Markit.

The Smart Columbus agreement with IHS Markit provides for data every quarter. The data is received 45 days after the end of the quarter, resulting in a four-month lag in using the data to evaluate the impact of initiatives. Obtaining vehicle registration data directly from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles has enabled us to estimate the monthly vehicle adoption numbers within a couple weeks of the end of each month. However, IHS data is used for formal reporting to grantors and stakeholders as it is more refined and shows a more accurate picture.

EV charging goals

As the team agreed on an EV adoption goal of 1.8 percent growth over three years, they also set goals to increase EV charging.

“It’s important to understand the correlation between EVs being purchased and the need to increase charging options, especially in residential developments,” Braughton says. “As most EVs are charged at home, if adequate charging is not made available, a concern is people will be running extension cords across sidewalks and parking lots to charge their cars.”

Again, the team leaned on national thought leaders, including the Electrification Coalition and National Renewable Energy Laboratory to discover the right balance of chargers needed to meet the needs of the new regional EV buyers and set the foundation for more growth in the future. A goal was set to increase public, residential and workplace charging by more than 950 charging ports, using a mix of educating stakeholders and offering installation incentives.

By locating the highest-traffic areas in central Ohio, the Smart Columbus team created a report highlighting the best places for public charging. The Smart Columbus team also aligned with local developers, offering incentives for multi-unit dwellings for installation in new and existing properties. Large workplaces were engaged through the Acceleration Partner program to understand the benefits of installing charging for employees.

Working with local utility companies is also an important part to creating charging goals. Both AEP Ohio and the City of Columbus Division of Power have been aligned with Smart Columbus goals since the program’s inception. AEP Ohio created a $9.5 million EV charging incentive program for businesses that aligned with Smart Columbus’ goals. The City of Columbus Division of Power also created a program to incentivize residential charging installation for its customers. With these partners, Smart Columbus was able to offer a portfolio of information, resources and incentives to businesses that inquired about EV charging.

This tactic helped Smart Columbus exceed its charging goals and lay the foundation for regional EV charging installation in the future.

EV fleet adoption goals

As much planning that goes into goal setting, there can be market challenges that can change original targets. The team met with businesses and partners to set a goal for regional private fleets to adopt 450 EVs over the grant period. Midway through the electrification grant, EV adoption by private fleets were stagnant.

“We wanted to target private fleets with local headquarters hoping that would move the numbers in central Ohio. But, when companies purchase vehicles we found they are often deployed across the US, especially in ZEV states. So that was one of the things that disrupted our local adoption goals,” Braughton says.

With several companies in the region, many had various fleet arrangements—some didn’t own fleet vehicles, some were transitioning to paying employees mileage instead of owning vehicles, and those with fleets had longer procurement cycles than would fit into our grant period.

“We still intend to work with companies to electrify their fleets, but it's going to have to be a long-term goal, not a short-term goal like we had with our project,” Braughton says.

Calculating greenhouse gas emission reduction

Ninety-nine percent of the GHG savings realized from the grant work resulted from decarbonization of the power grid. The other one percent was from consumers, public and private EV adoption. Because of this, calculating GHG reduction is a combination of several factors, including decarbonization, energy efficiency and reduction of transportation emissions.

There was no how-to manual for calculating GHG emissions savings for EVs in our region. We received support from NREL, AEP Ohio, the International Council on Clean Transportation and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. All provided important contributions in terms of what assumptions or calculations were most appropriate to include in measuring GHG reduction.

In 2018, 28 percent of U.S. energy was generated by coal power plants. In the Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database region designated by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency that includes Columbus, the percent of electricity generated by coal has dropped from 60 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2016 to 44 percent in the latest values from 2018. Although Ohio’s grid isn’t as reliant on renewables as other parts of the country yet, driving an EV in Ohio is still cleaner than driving a 56 mpg gasoline car.

Various efforts are underway to increase the utility-scale renewable energy capacity and promote energy efficiency throughout the region. Of the 11 power providers in the seven-county region AEP Ohio supplies the largest amount of power. The Columbus Division of Power also serves as a significant power provider within the region.

Both power providers have begun plans for future renewable energy capacity to be installed. In addition to the renewable grid efforts, AEP Ohio and the Division of Power implemented energy efficiency efforts to reduce the power demand for the region. These include distributed energy programs, green power purchase plans, advanced metering infrastructure programs, energy efficient product promotions, and LED streetlight conversions, all of which contribute to a reduction in GHGs.


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