Climate Stories Episode #4: Erika Myers, Acting Director of Global E-Mobility at the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

In this episode of Climate Stories, we explore the progress that’s been made over the last two years in the adoption of electric vehicles globally. As thrilling as that news is, huge challenges remain to make a meaningful dent in the transportation sector’s CO2 emissions.

"I have cut the cord with gas guzzlers. I have two electric vehicles!"– Erika Myers

Erika Myers’ professional glass is half-full. For almost two years, she has been actively engaged in promoting electric vehicle (EV) adoption. As acting director of Global E-Mobility at the research non-profit, the World Resources Institute, she straddles the intersection of the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as well as the transition from gas guzzling cars and trucks to EVs.

As an EV researcher, advocate, and educator at a leading NGO dedicated to driving systemic change, Erika’s job is daunting. Transportation makes up 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, yet so far, EV adoption has barely made a dent in reducing those emissions. A recent United Nations climate report warns that harmful carbon emissions have never been higher in human history.

First, the encouraging news:

● Data analysts at reported record sales in the U.S. in the first half of 2021, despite global chip shortages and uncertainties about the pandemic. The roughly 292,000 EV sales in six months fell just short of the “average for the full years of 2018-2020.” The analysts also reported an increase of 4,216 direct current fast chargers in 2021 over 2020, “the second highest change in deployments since 2018.” Over the five years from 2017 through 2021, “the number of DC fast charger ports increased 248%.”

● In an interview with Climate Stories, Erika said she was delighted to have seen seven ads during this year’s Super Bowl LVI featuring a vehicle with a plug. “Super Bowl ads are usually dominated by gas guzzlers. It’s exciting to see that automakers’ marketing budgets have entered the EV space.” The ads, she noted, confirm the growing consumer interest in and target market for electric vehicles.

● Tesla’s boast that it delivered 1 million cars last year shows “that the technology is viable and that consumers want it.” Searches for EVs on auto websites have increased 30% year over year. “Partly, that’s a result of feelings of oil insecurity and supply reductions,” Erika said. “But Tesla can’t fill all of the orders it’s receiving because of the high demand.” She applauded the choices and added value for consumers that Lucid Motors is introducing, along with new EV models from VW and General Motors. “They are superior to internal combustion engine cars,” she said. And, there are efforts to make EVs more affordable. In early April of 2022, GM CEO Mary Barra announced a partnership with Honda to produce less expensive EVs that are predicted to cost less than $30,000.

● Wearing her global hat, Erika congratulated Europeans for their EV adoption and lamented that fewer than 2% of vehicles sold in the United States are electric vehicles. She noted that Norway ranks number 1 in per capita EV sales, while the U.S. trails, ranking 5th or 6th in per capita sales. “Europe is a stronger EV market per capita,” she said. And she added that in December, “Europeans bought more EVs than diesels because of well thought out policies. Both public and workplace charging stations along with private ones have convinced consumers, ‘I won’t be stranded.’” Erika applauded the United Kingdom’s funding initiatives to support the deployment of residential V2G (vehicle-to-grid). According to sources from Octopus Energy UK, who managed one of these funding initiatives, some vehicle owners were compensated as much as $400 USD equivalent for exporting power from their cars’ batteries to the grid during the trial period between 2019-2020, Erika explained.

● Because of its local air pollution, China is the strongest market for EVs, Erika said. She credited China’s two-front strategy to prepare the country for mass EV adoption: 1) increasing access to a charging infrastructure, as well as 2) restrictions on the types of vehicles that can be driven so as to reduce air pollution.

● Erika applauded the Biden administration’s multi-billion dollar commitments to fund electric zero-emission and low-emission school buses, as well as to replace old diesel school buses. She noted the recent EPA proposed rule that would reduce harmful nitrogen oxide emissions from new trucks by up to 90% by 2031.

For all the EV progress, however, Erika cited a long list of challenges to mass EV adoption. They fall into three categories: creating an equitable, nationwide charging infrastructure; training a new and/or re-skilled green workforce; and manufacturing more vehicles.

1. As Erika explained it, there are several major obstacles to creating an equitable charging infrastructure across the United States. The first big issue is finding ways to serve consumers, regardless of the type or location of their homes.

● In cities, renters and those who live in multi-unit dwellings do not currently have a charging infrastructure. “If you don’t have a dedicated parking spot, you won’t have equal access,” Erika said. “If you live in a condominium run by a homeowners association (HOA), for example, who pays for the EV charging installation; where and how will chargers be located; and who will decide how much each homeowner will have to pay each month? These are all issues that impact charger access.”

● One solution could be creating more public charger access, for example, installing curbside chargers mounted to street lights and/or utility poles. Erika said, “The installation cost would be a fraction of the cost for individuals.” However, government permitting and zoning issues come into play, particularly in underserved neighborhoods.

● Erika pointed to the Biden administration’s commitment to the Justice40 framework – ensuring that at least 40% of federal climate investments go directly to frontline communities most affected by poverty and pollution. She thinks Justice40 could help “drive alignment between governments, NGOs and civil society groups to allow EVs to flourish.”

2. The second major obstacle is one that’s familiar to readers of Climate Stories: locating and/or creating a green workforce to build and maintain the EV charger infrastructure.

● “We need concerted job training programs,” Erika said, “because there are currently more green jobs than there are skilled workers.” She noted the parallels between the skills demanded by the oil extraction and the utility industries and those needed in new, clean energy industries. “Job training can help the workers move from older to newer energy sectors.”

● Erika pointed to the “Just Transition” framework, a collection of principles and policies “intended to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy,” developed by think tanks and trade unions. Already, the European Union has approved a Just Transition Fund of some 19 Billion Euros (roughly $21B) to help up-skill and re-skill workers displaced by the green transition through 2027.

● The job training issue is personal for Erika. “My job is training the next generation of EV leaders, but I’m having trouble recruiting trained EV researchers. I have five job openings for every qualified candidate I can find.”

3. The demand for electric vehicles far outstrips the currently available supply.

● On the federal front, President Biden has issued an executive order asking every agency to have zero emissions vehicles in their fleets. However, Erika warned that those agencies “can’t access EV vehicle model options in mass quantities.”

● Likewise, major fleet operators, like Amazon, Fedex and UPS, offer the perfect scenario for EVs. As Erika noted, “They typically have fixed and shorter routes that work well with battery life.” Indeed, in 2019, Amazon pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, ordering 100,000 E-delivery trucks from Rivian by 2023. But the effort appears to have stalled. Again, Erika said, “I don’t know if the manufacturers can produce enough cars.”

● She sees a huge opportunity in the underserved “heavy duty vehicles” market. “There is a need to reach out to fleet managers of Class 2 to Class 3 trucks. But again, the supply of electric trucks is exceeded by the demand.”

Erika is personally involved in another major effort to advance EV adoption. Over the last two years, she has overseen the development of the World Resource Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative. The goal is nothing short of creating “unstoppable momentum toward equitably electrifying the entire U.S. fleet of school buses by 2030 to help school districts and communities decarbonize and reduce air pollution.” She has been pleased by the progress from Stockton, California to Montgomery County, Maryland.

In early April, New York State lawmakers agreed to a $220 billion budget with plans to make the state’s approximately 50,000 school buses 100% electric by 2035. Erika’s WRI colleagues hailed New York’s effort, saying: “This plan makes New York the first state in the country to commit to fully electrifying its school bus fleet and sets a clear benchmark for other states looking to protect kids’ health.” And, the American Lung Association applauded the announcement, saying: “Close to 25 million kids ride to school every day on diesel-powered school buses that emit millions of tons of pollution per year… The toxic pollution in diesel exhaust can harm children’s brain development and respiratory health.” The question remains whether New York State can access enough electric buses to meet its goals.

School bus electrification, with its emphasis on reducing the harmful effects of pollution on children, is spurring the nationwide Mothers Out Front campaign. Indeed, Erika believes that “E-mobility needs to be a women’s issue.” In her spare time, she helped to co-found the DC chapter of Women of EVs non-profit organization and blog to coalesce, educate and elevate women throughout the EV ecosystem.

“Women should guide the creation of the charging infrastructure,” she said. “I’d love to see equitable gender parity in the auto space…from engineers to software designers to infrastructure technicians.” Erika is particularly concerned about the safety issues connected with EV charging station construction. “For example, if the charging station is in the darkest corner of a parking garage, women will see it as unsafe. Charging stations should be in well-lit places. They should be as safe as if they were gas stations.”

The name Erika chose for her blog captures her passion: EV Love.

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.