Kontou drives electric vehicles forward in US, Illinois

7/19/2022 12:00:00 PM

The U.S. Climate Alliance aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 26% and 50% by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

Eleftheria Kontou
Eleftheria Kontou

To help meet this goal, Eleftheria (Ria) Kontou, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering assistant professor, will focus on transport electrification — the process of replacing fossil fuel-burning technologies, such as cars, with electric ones.

The electrification of personal vehicles is vital to achieving climate goals, as transportation generated 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It (the transportation sector) is almost exclusively based on fossil fuels in terms of powering the majority of the vehicles that we see, particularly on the ground,” Kontou said.

“There are a lot of opportunities for diversifying its power sources, which has a lot of implications for improving energy efficiency, reducing environmental impacts and contributing towards energy security,” she added.

Powering up for adoption

Two of the largest barriers for adopting electric vehicles — high price tags and lack of charging stations — have been proven to influence drivers’ willingness to go electric.

In a recently published study, Kontou aims to allay these issues by helping policymakers optimize monetary incentives for buying electric vehicles with investments in charging infrastructure.

Eleftheria Kontou (left) with Yen-Chu Wu
Eleftheria Kontou (left) with Yen-Chu Wu

Kontou and Yen-Chu Wu, a CEE master’s student, developed an optimization model to help drive the adoption of electric vehicles and to meet emission-reduction targets over different long-term periods.

“This type of model helps us come up with trajectories of how rebates and charging infrastructure need to be rolled out so that we can meet emission-reduction targets that are set by policymakers,” Kontou said. “It also tracks how consumers may make decisions to transition (to electric vehicles) over this time.”

Based on their model’s trajectories, Kontou and Wu recommend that policymakers provide monetary incentives for electric vehicles first before making significant investment in charging infrastructure.

“If a technology is very new, people are naturally hesitant to adopt it because they don’t know that it is reliable,” Kontou said. “But as more and more people adopt, people feel more confident regarding adopting the new technology.”

They also recommend building up reliable charging infrastructure gradually in the first 15 years of a 30-year planning period.

Charging forward with implementation

Kontou and Christopher Schmidt, Illinois Department of Transportation’s air quality manager, will apply the same technique to the state of Illinois in an IDOT-ICT project, “R27-236: Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Plan in Illinois.”

Kontou will use her experience at the national level to help IDOT build similar trajectory models for the adoption of electric vehicles in Illinois, which seeks to meet the goals of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

Her approach will allow the state to establish the number of charging stations it will need to support electric vehicles and to estimate the adoption level of electric vehicles it will need by 2030 to achieve its emission-reduction goals.

Kontou and Schmidt also created an electric vehicle steering committee with individuals from industry, public agencies in Illinois, charging infrastructure providers and electric vehicle auto manufacturers.

After their statewide analysis, Kontou aims to break down the demand for electric vehicles by clusters of regions with similar adoption levels, such as urban and rural, to more realistically model the existing and future transitions to electric vehicles.

The IDOT-ICT project will conclude December 2022.