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.
The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.