Looking to EVs

Electric vehicles are Houston's saving grace to enhance the 'alarming' air quality

Houston is the ninth worst U.S. metro for ozone pollution, but the future isn't foggy. Electric vehicles can improve air quality by 50 percent. Getty Images

Let's clear the air about Houston's air pollution: A recent report from the American Lung Association ranks Houston the ninth worst U.S. metro area for ozone pollution and the 17th worst in the broad category of long-term particle pollution.

Yet the future might not be so cloudy for Houston's atmosphere.

A newly published study in the journal Atmospheric Environment indicates that replacing at least 35 percent of Houston's gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles by 2040 could improve air quality by 50 percent. And if electric vehicles replaced 75 percent of traditional cars and trucks by 2040, air quality could improve by 75 percent, according to the study.

This conversion to electric vehicles would enable residents of the Houston area to "breathe easier, live longer, and enjoy a better economy," the researchers say.

"The population in 2040 Houston will see a huge increase, but we can apply new technology to reduce emissions, improve air quality, and think about health," says one of the researchers, Shuai Pan, a postdoctoral associate in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

Pan earned a doctoral degree in atmospheric science from the University of Houston in 2017.

Kevin Douglass, president of the Houston Electric Auto Association, tells InnovationMap that the study does a good job of emphasizing "the alarming situation that Houston is in with reference to its air quality and how electrification of the transportation system is a … way to improve the bad-air-quality situation."

The nonprofit Houston Electric Auto Association comprises EV owners, hobbyists, educators, and enthusiasts who promote the benefits of these vehicles.

Douglass says he's confident about the progression of the EV evolution in Houston.

"It only took a decade to go from horse-drawn carriage to automobile in the U.S.," he says. "One and a half decades from now, in 2035, at least half of the cars on the road will be electric. Thirty years from now, the vast majority of vehicles will be electric and autonomous."

Houston — which the nonprofit Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative praises as one of the 10 friendliest U.S. cities for EVs — already is on the road toward enhancing air quality by putting more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. In fact, a 2018 report from the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center predicts the number of EVs in Houston will rise to 65,000 by 2030.

An estimated 9,500 EVs were being driven by Houston motorists in 2018, according to a presentation given in May by Michael Conklin, external engagement manager at Houston-based utility CenterPoint Energy. And by 2028, that number could reach 110,000, the presentation says.

"Electric cars aren't the future — they're already here, and they work," Douglass said in 2018. "As more people learn about them, they will enjoy owning and driving them."

Among Houston's highest-profile EV champions is Mayor Sylvester Turner, who's leading the charge to shift the city-owned fleet away from traditional vehicles and toward hybrids and EVs.

"Transportation is responsible for 48 percent of Houston's greenhouse gas emissions — the highest per capita of all U.S. cities — and something we must address to move our city forward," Turner, co-chair of the Climate Mayors organization, said in 2018.

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Building Houston

 
 

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world, says this expert. Photo courtesy

The state of Texas, as well as the rest of the nation, has been intensely impacted by the effects of climate change as well as aging utility infrastructure. Innovative drone technologies help address the pressing inspection and mapping needs of utilities and other critical infrastructure across the country, primarily bridges and roads, railways, pipelines, and powerplants.

There is a significant need for high-precision inspection services in today's market. Additional work will result if the proposed infrastructure bill passes. The bill has $73 billion earmarked toward modernizing the nation's electricity grid. Drone —or UAS (unmanned aerial systems)— technological advances, including thermal imaging, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), IRR (infrared radiation and remote sensing), and AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) are applied toward determining and predicting trends and are instrumental toward making our country safer.

"The newest advances in drone technology are not so much in the drones themselves, but rather, in the sensors and cameras, such as thermal cameras. Technologies such as LiDAR are now more cost-effective. The newer sensors permit the drones to operate in tighter spaces and cover more acreage in less time, with higher accuracy and fidelity", according to Will Paden, president of Soaring Eagle Technologies, a Houston-based tech-enabled imaging company servicing utility and energy companies.

Paden anticipates growth in the use of the technology for critical infrastructure including utilities, pipelines, power plants, bridges, buildings, railways, and more, for routine and post-storm inspections

"[Soaring Eagle's] ability to harness UAS technology to efficiently retrieve field data across our 8,000+ square mile area is unprecedented. Coupling this data with post-processing methods such as asset digitization unlocked a plethora of opportunities to visualize system resources and further analyze the surrounding terrain and environment," says Paige Richardson, GIS specialist with Navopache Electric Cooperative. "Our engineering and operations departments now have the ability to view 3D substation models, abstract high-resolution digital evaluation models, and apply these newfound resources as they work on future construction projects."

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world. The UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology offers an environmentally cleaner option for routine and post-storm inspections, replacing the use of fossil fuels consumed by helicopters. The use of drones versus traditional inspection systems is significantly safer, more efficient and accurate than traditional alternatives such as scaffolding or bucket trucks. Mapping and inspection work can be done at much lower costs than with manned aircraft operations. These are highly technical flights, where the focus on safety and experience flying both manned and unmanned aircraft, is paramount.

There is much work ahead in high-tech drone technology services, especially for companies vetted by the FAA with high safety standards. According to one study, the overall drone inspection & monitoring market is projected to grow from USD 9.1 billion in 2021 to USD 33.6 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 15.7 percent from 2021 to 2030. North America is estimated to account for the largest share of the drone inspection & monitoring market from 2021 to 2030.

Paden predicts the use of machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) and data automation will continue to improve over the next 3-5 years, as more data is collected and analyzed and the technology is a applied to "teach it" to detect patterns and anomalies. He anticipates ML/AI will filter out the amount of data the end users will need to view to make decisions saving time and money for the end users.

Learn more at the Energy Drone & Robotics Summit taking place in The Woodlands on October 25 through October 27.

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Alex Danielides is head of business development for Houston-based Iapetus Holdings, a privately held, minority and veteran-owned portfolio of energy and utility services businesses. One of the companies is Soaring Eagle Technologies.

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