Achieving carbon neutrality requires both institutional and individual action. It’s not enough, many argue, for individuals to modify their behaviors if large organizations do not follow suit.
And likewise, it’s not enough for institutions to commit to move in a more sustainable direction if individuals don’t know how their actions make a difference in achieving those commitments.
The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality is seeking to bridge this divide by exploring emissions from direct campus operations and purchased power, as well as those from indirect sources — largely driven by individual actions relating to university business.
While most commission analysis teams tend to study either direct or indirect emissions, one subgroup examined the nexus between these through the lens of mobility.
“We are in the center of the automotive world,” said Anna Stefanopoulou, a PCCN commissioner and director of the U-M Energy Institute. “We are ground zero when it comes to automotive manufacturing areas, and our students are looking for us to be leaders in that.”
Earlier this year, Stefanopoulou led a research group exploring the role of electric vehicle adoption toward emissions reductions, noting the potential for U-M to procure and use electric buses, and to further incentivize U-M community members to adopt electric vehicles.
Transportation operations on campus account for 3 percent of total U-M Scope 1 emissions (those emissions from direct operations) and a shift toward EVs could drive those emissions significantly lower. The team estimates that an electric bus and accompanying charger costs approximately $465,000 more than a diesel-powered bus. That said, electric buses offer approximately $21,000 in annual maintenance and fuel savings.
The team cites that the potential emissions abatement from a full electrification of the U-M bus fleet could be equivalent to eliminating the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 200 houses.
At current costs, electric buses require a long payoff period to become less expensive than their diesel counterparts. Team members point out, however, that available subsidies can mitigate upfront costs, and that EV technology should become less expensive as it continues to scale. Many municipalities appear to be banking on significant cost decreases, including New York and Chicago, which aim to have entirely electric bus fleets by 2040.
Costs aside, Blue Buses remain highly visible on campus, and Stefanopoulou argues that transitioning to an electric fleet would give U-M the opportunity to showcase its commitment to broader sustainability and set a regional standard.
“We need to become pioneers and first adopters in the region, and go forward using this COVID period where transit is perhaps not so highly utilized to build up capacity and do active, real simulations for a large transformation,” she said.
Addressing key gaps in information and infrastructure is crucial in driving this transformation — both on the campus side and toward incentivizing U-M community members to drive electric.
“EVs are constantly seeing cost reductions and there’s also a pretty robust used EV market now,” said Kamryn Hayes, a team member and LSA senior studying economics and in the Program in the Environment. “Batteries can also be repurposed. As long as they have a certain capacity to charge, then they’re ideal for most commuters.”
Hayes, who joined the team with experience in clean energy advocacy, conducted research into peer institutions, focusing on how they encouraged behavioral change. She said income and information are key determinants into whether people are likely to adopt EVs.
“A lot of people don’t know that while it’s a higher upfront cost for electric vehicles, there’s a payoff period and then eventually you’re saving money by not purchasing gasoline.” she said.
“It’s difficult for a lot of staff at the University of Michigan to actually afford to live in Ann Arbor and walk to their jobs. That challenge creates a lot of carbon emissions because a lot of people require long commutes,” said Preston VanAlstine, an LSA senior and member of the subgroup. “So mobility is a really important piece because of that disparity in who can afford to live where, which is causing higher amounts of carbon to go into the atmosphere.”
VanAlstine, who is studying ecology and evolutionary biology, and in the Program in the Environment, joined the group with experience in climate activism and an interest in getting involved at a technical level. He conducted similar peer research, with an eye toward workplace EV charging, which, if offered, can be an added incentive for people to make the shift.
It remains uncertain, however, who would be the early beneficiaries of such an incentive, or whether those who are burdened with long commutes would become early EV adopters.
VanAlstine underscores the importance of equity in EV deployment, while noting an opportunity to increase capacity, citing that the university operates 14 EV charging stations. Though the University of California established a goal to get 4.5 percent of commuters in EVs by 2025, VanAlstine saw similar public commitments to be lacking in the Midwest.
“If we do a big investment in this kind of electric vehicle infrastructure, we can be one of the first universities to do something at this scale and really pave the way for other universities to do the same thing,” he said.
The mobility electrification subgroup also includes Juan-Jie Sun and Jason Siegel of the College of Engineering, and John DeCicco, associate director of the U-M Energy Institute.
The carbon commission expects to make its draft recommendations available for public comment during the fall and deliver its final report by the end of the calendar year.