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Todd Davidson, Webber Energy Group and UT Energy Institute

Episode 35 | February 19, 2019

Dr. Todd Davidson, Ph.D., is a Research Analyst at the Webber Energy Group and The University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute. He chats with hosts Tim Duffy and Sherren Harter about solving big climate change issues, from electric vehicles to decarbonizing the industry sector, and about building a healthier future through our personal choices.

An Adventurous Texan Who Solves Big Problems

Dr. Todd Davidson, Ph.D., jokes that he grew up in the “far West Texas” town of Tucson, Arizona before moving to San Antonio at age 18. After graduating from Trinity University, he started a career working on missile defense systems because he is fascinated by the idea of solving big problems. Some of his work took place in Alaska, where Davidson also had mountaineering experience. As an avid outdoorsman, he even lived on an Alaskan glacier for a month.

His passion for the outdoors led him to discover an interest in sustainability, energy consumption, and climate change. “Energy is so intricately linked with modern society and quality of life,” he says, “that there’s a real ethical question about making sure that we can get the right amount of energy to people so that they can live in a prosperous way, but then there’s also this balancing act of trying to be good environmental stewards.” That challenge has been the focus of his career ever since.

Davidson came to Austin to attend The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school and then to earn his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. His research focus was on making natural gas power generation more efficient. Natural gas is an important a bridge fuel to the future. It is already much cleaner burning than coal and is a more reliable backbone for the electric grid than intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. While natural gas may not be an ideal generation source 100 years from now, it is a clear environmental winner in the near-term as compared to coal.

The Importance of Transportation to Climate Change

After finishing his Ph.D., Davidson worked on several entrepreneurial ventures through his connection with the McCombs School of Business. One of the start-ups he led was focused on energy storage specifically in the transportation space.

A lot of the conversation around decarbonization is centered on renewable energy in the electricity sector, through solar panels or wind turbines. Those efforts are important, but transportation is perhaps even more critical. “Transportation is the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the United States,” says Davidson, “even larger than electricity generation.”

The incumbent automobile industry has massive scale, producing hundreds or even thousands of times more internal combustion engine cars than electric cars. Companies like Tesla really are moving the needle of EV adoption, but it will take years or even decades to fully transition to electric cars. Most people own their car for about 7 years, but the average age of cars on the road today is 12 years or older.

Still, Davidson is optimistic. “As the case becomes even more compelling to use electric vehicles,” he says, “then I think we are going to see very rapid adoption, perhaps even faster than many analysts are expecting right now.” He notes that electric cars are incredibly fun to drive, and the economics are becoming increasingly more competitive. Some analysts are predicting that we will see sticker price parity by the 2020s, and the total cost of ownership including fuel costs is almost at parity today.

Davidson goes on to say that the duty cycle, which is defined as how often you have to charge your vehicle and how far you drive every day, can determine the economics of an electric vehicle. An industrial operator driving a forklift in a warehouse that is constantly running and must be refueled quickly is not a great fit for today’s lithium ion battery. On the other hand, an EV is an excellent fit for a commuter living in a dense urban center who drives less than 50 miles per day and can charge overnight.

The electrification of our vehicles raises many questions about how it is going to happen, how quickly, how much it will cost, who will manufacture the vehicles, where we will source the minerals for the vehicle batteries, and how the marketplace will transition from gasoline fueling stations to publicly or privately owned electric charging stations. These questions have not yet been fully answered, but we will begin to see progress given the increasingly compelling value proposition and longer range of electric vehicles.

Perhaps one of the challenges that will soon be solved is the lack of an electric pickup truck. In college, Davidson's dream car was a Toyota Tacoma. He is still holding out hope that Rivian and Ford's recent announcement of an electric F-150 will open the market for electrified trucks.

Davidson has also emphasized that electrifying personal vehicles isn't a silver bullet for decarbonizing the transportation sector. Public transit, carpooling, ridesharing, cycling, and walking are all important to improve the environmental impact of our mobility choices.

How EVs Tie into the Grid

By choosing electric vehicles, we are basically choosing to move from oil to electricity as fueling solution. That raises the question about the sources of our electricity, which today are primarily natural gas, coal in some places, and increasingly renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Research by The Energy Institute and Webber Energy Group determined that electricity consumption would increase by 30 to 40 percent if all vehicles in the U.S. were electrified. Intelligently planning vehicle charging times could reduce that impact if cars charge during the morning periods of lower demand.

According to Davidson’s research, the existing Texas electric grid infrastructure could handle the increased demand from transitioning every vehicle in Texas to an EV. The question is how we set up market structures, policies, incentives and intelligent charging infrastructure to encourage people to charge during the most efficient times.

The electricity and transportation systems are becoming more linked over time and will continue to do so, which will create a realignment of industry relationships. The Fords and Teslas of the world may be working more with companies like General Electric or utilities like Austin Energy than oil companies like Exxon.

Solving Future Challenges

We have a very clear path to decarbonizing the transportation and electricity sectors, and Davidson is very confident that we can address both. A bigger challenge is decarbonizing the industrial sector, particularly petrochemical products.

In our daily lives and homes, we interact with dozens of products that are made almost directly from petroleum products. That includes plastics, medications, lubricants, packaged foods, clothing, our phones, and more. Many of the products that enable our modern life are synthetic and derived from petroleum products. These products are vital to modern society and health. Potential solutions could include carbon capture or synthetic fuels. For example, what if we could use wind and solar to produce hydrogen through electrolysis that can then be a feed stock to replace fossil fuels in the industrial sector? That technology already exists today but is significantly more expensive than using conventional petroleum products.

Davidson wants people to be optimistic about the challenges that we face. He explains, “We actually have all of the solutions that we need. The challenge is just about bringing down cost, and to me bringing down cost is a much easier thing to do than actually reinventing science.”

He is excited to see people experimenting with new solutions and manufacturing at scale and believes that will bring down the costs.

Beyond these large-scale solutions, we can all think about our own personal habits. Davidson ends by reminding us that the purchases we make every day are a way of voting for the future we want to live in, and he is hopeful that we can use those choices to create a brighter future.

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